If Brian Kemp avoids a runoff as the final votes for Georgia governor are tallied (as of Monday afternoon, Stacey Abrams would need at least 20,890 more votes to force a runoff), Republicans may want to pause after their celebrations to consider their growing weakness in the increasingly suburban state. Meanwhile, Democrats also have reason to worry: Abrams’ strategy of energizing loyal party voters didn’t work uniformly throughout the state.
Analysis of this year’s gubernatorial election results reveals a growing division between rural and suburban counties and a surprising decrease in Democratic votes outside of metropolitan Atlanta compared to recent presidential elections.
A record number of voters turned out for the gubernatorial election, more than in any midterm in Georgia history and in line with recent presidential elections. Turnout exceeded each of the previous two gubernatorial vote totals by over 50 percent and trails only the 2016 presidential election. The number of votes cast for governor in 2018 exceeds the votes cast for president in 2008 and 20012 (by less than one percent as of Monday afternoon).
Both Kemp and Abrams received more votes than any previous gubernatorial candidate in Georgia. Kemp trails only President Trump, 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain in total votes garnered for the top of a ticket.
Sen. Johnny Isaakson, running with Trump at the top of the ticket, tops them all with 2,135,806 votes in his 2016 re-election.
For her part, Abrams received more votes in Georgia than any Democratic candidate at any level and has come closer to winning the governorship than any Democrat since Roy Barnes won in 1996.
Given this nationalization and the presidential election-level turnout, comparing county-level results for the 2018 gubernatorial election to the state’s results in the last two presidential elections reveals patterns in how Georgia voters are changing and how those changes are distributed throughout the state.
The remarkable turnout for both candidates, aided by the state’s population growth, reflects the increasing nationalization of state politics. The days of Blue Dog Democrats, liberal Republicans and widespread ticket splitting are dwindling, if not gone.
The high-profile gubernatorial race attracted record donations, much of it from out of state. A majority of Abrams’ contributions came from outside of Georgia, while Kemp raised millions from Republican and conservative-leaning groups based out-of-state, including the National Rifle Association and the National Association of Realtors.
Abrams, vying to become the nation’s first black female governor and bolstered by impassioned opposition to the president, attracted support from national figures ranging from former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden to Oprah Winfrey and Will Farrell, while Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both visited the state to rally their base behind Kemp.
Uneven turnout differences
While votes in 2018 exceeded those in 2012 by almost 34,000 votes, that increased turnout was not uniform. Most of it came from the Atlanta area. Fulton County accounted for nearly 27,000 additional votes (78 percent of the state’s net increase), while much of rural Georgia saw fewer votes than in 2012.
The smaller city centers were also down. Almost 4,000 fewer votes were cast in Macon-Bibb County, Columbus’ Muscogee County was down over 7,500 votes and Augusta’s Richmond County was down nearly 9,000 votes.
Breaking these turnout numbers into votes per candidate reveals potential implications for the strategies of the candidates and their parties.
With Trump’s support, Kemp hoped to energize rural Georgians to vote. That seems to have largely worked.
In the 2012 election with a similar total turnout, Kemp improved upon Romney’s vote totals in 103 (or 74 percent) of the 140 predominantly rural counties (defined here as those counties with more than 20 percent of the population in areas that are not “densely developed” according to the last census). Compared to 2016, an election with higher turnout, Kemp garnered more votes than Trump in 37 (26 percent) rural counties.
Abrams ran a statewide effort, hoping to energize voters who have sat out previous elections, especially midterms, and to put together a coalition similar to the one that won two terms for Obama (though he lost Georgia by nearly eight points). Compared to previous gubernatorial elections, she succeeded. Abrams received more votes than Jason Carter, the previous Democratic nominee for governor, in 150 of Georgia’s 159 counties.
However, when comparing county vote totals for Abrams with those for Obama in 2012 (again, an election with slightly fewer total votes and with Obama losing the state), the results point to a surprising downturn of Democratic votes outside of the Atlanta area.
Though her margins improved, Abrams received fewer votes than Obama in each of the major cities outside of the Atlanta and Athens areas that she carried, except for Savannah where she edged Obama’s vote total by less than 1,000.
In the counties housing Macon, Columbus, Augusta, Albany and Savannah, she received 14,726 fewer votes than Obama (while two of those counties have an estimated population decline this decade, the net increase in population for those counties is roughly 23,000). Contrast that decrease with the statewide total — where Abrams received 144,386 more votes than Obama — with the five-county metropolitan Atlanta area, where she improved Obama’s total by 150,793.
A growing suburban/rural divide
The map of margins by county illustrates the political polarization of Georgia’s counties, a polarization largely defined by population density. Of the 19 predominantly suburban (or urban) counties, Abrams won 14, and of the 139 predominantly rural counties, Kemp won 125.
The margins between Republican and Democratic candidates have diverged over the past few elections, showing an increasingly divided state. The average margin for Kemp across all rural counties was 38 percent, which improved upon Trump’s rural margin of 36 percent and Romney’s of 29 percent. The margin for Abrams across all suburban counties was 17 percent, which improved up Clinton’s 11 percent suburban margin and Obama’s 5 percent.
That growing divide is well distributed across the suburban and rural counties. Compared with 2016, Kemp increased Republican margins in 116 of the 139 rural counties he carried, while Abrams increased Democratic margins in all of the suburban counties, including the five she did not carry.
As one example, while Abrams trailed Kemp in Houston County 41 percent to 58 percent, she improved on Democratic margins by five percent compared to Clinton and by four percent compared to Obama. In other words, most (83 percent) rural counties voted more Republican, and all suburban counties voted more Democratic.
Should this trend continue, Republicans’ ability to retain their hold on the Georgia House and Senate may be strengthened, while the Democrats’ suburban strength will enhance their chances in statewide races. The Democratic margin in suburban counties has grown, as has its importance in statewide races. Suburban counties represent 59 percent of Georgia’s population, and they are growing three times faster. Since 2010, suburban counties have grown an estimated 10.7 percent, while rural counties have grown 3.6 percent.