Reverse Migration Might Turn Georgia Blue

More black people from the Northeast and Midwest are moving to Atlanta. That could help elect the nation’s first black female governor.

The Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, at a watch party Tuesday night (John Bazemore / AP)

ATLANTA—Adrienne White remembers the first time she visited Atlanta as a junior in college. White, who is black, walked into a grocery store in an affluent neighborhood while she was staying with her uncle, and by the time she walked out, she hadn’t seen one white person. “I was shocked,” White told me. “That left a really good taste in my mouth.” So when White, an accountant who is now 37, was looking for a place to move from Virginia more than a decade ago, Atlanta made a lot of sense. It was a place where people were friendly, where there were good jobs, and where there was a strong black middle class.

White, a Democrat, has never lived in a Georgia run by Democrats. The state, solidly blue for most of the 20th century, has been run by a succession of two-term Republicans, Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal, since 2003. Republicans have held control of the state Senate since 2003 and the state House of Representatives since 2005. But the increase in people like White—black migrants from different parts of the country—are giving Democrats hope that they can soon turn Georgia blue.

Democrats in Georgia don’t want to wait, and are hoping to turn the state blue this year. They think their best hope lies in Stacey Abrams, a black lawyer who was the House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly. Abrams routed her Democratic opponent, Stacey Evans, Tuesday, winning by a three-to-one margin. If she wins the general election, Abrams would be the first black woman to be elected governor in the country.

Atlanta could play a big role in turning Georgia blue. It has been the epicenter of what demographers are calling the “reverse Great Migration,” a trend that is seeing black people whose great-grandparents may have moved up north for better job opportunities during the Jim Crow era, move back south. The Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell metro area gained 251,000 black people between 2010 and 2016, which made it the metro area in the United States that added the most black people over that time period, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The increasing black presence via continued in-migration will almost certainly help to make Georgia a swing state in future elections,” Frey told me.

Abrams’s race for governor could also send a clear message to Democrats: Appealing to progressives can be a winning strategy. As the 2016 race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton showed, the Democratic National Committee has at times been hesitant to embrace progressive candidates. Targeting moderates and one-time Republicans could be especially intriguing this year, as Republicans wary of President Donald Trump may be convinced to vote Democratic. But Abrams’s campaign is a chance for Democrats to take a different tack, as my colleague Elaine Godfrey has written—one that focuses instead on progressives and minorities. It’s a strategy that makes sense demographically: The country is projected to become majority-minority by 2044, and diversity is something the DNC has said it cares about. It’s also a strategy that some parts of the Democratic Party have recently been pushing. Prominent progressives, including California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and even Sanders himself, endorsed Abrams ahead of the primary.

Abrams’s campaign is approaching the elections with a different strategy than those of previous candidates in Georgia, including that of Jason Carter, the grandson of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who lost the gubernatorial race to Nathan Deal in 2014. Carter and previous Democratic candidates reached out to white, suburban voters who might lean Republican, and tried to convince them to vote for Democrats. Abrams’s campaign has instead targeted reliable Democratic voters like black people throughout the state who may have stayed home in 2014 and 2016. Her campaign has painted her as progressive, rather than moderate: fiercely pro-choice, in favor of public schools and gun control. Statewide Democrats have lost previous races by 200,000 or so votes, a number Abrams’s campaign thinks it can pick up from black people and progressives who might have been turned off by the moderate messages of previous Democratic candidates.

The reverse migration of black people to Georgia might help her cause. The new migrants to the Atlanta region are often young, black, and more progressive than the people who already live in the region, according to Sabrina Pendergrass, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who has studied the reverse Great Migration. Their education background is a contrast to the people who moved north during the Great Migration that began in 1916—those migrants were often less educated than the black people who already lived in cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Unmarried black people, college-educated black people, and women seem to be moving South in especially large numbers, Pendergrass said. They’re moving for better job opportunities, for lower housing prices, and to get out of neighborhoods in industrial cities that may be still struggling with crime, she said. Atlanta now has the largest black Millennial population in the country.

Bianca Keaton is one such transplant who might help propel Abrams to victory. Keaton, who is 34, black and originally from Chicago, attended college in Georgia, and then moved to Washington, D.C., to work in government. She and her husband moved to Georgia in 2014. She voted for Abrams in the primary because she felt like Abrams would do a good job “galvanizing voters that may have traditionally felt left out,” she told me. As a black woman, Keaton said, she also likes the idea of someone being in office whose experiences are reflective of her own. It may seem simplistic to assume that black people will just vote for a candidate who looks like them. But black voters may be more motivated to get to the polls if they think someone who will represent their interests is running; Barack Obama proved a much greater pull for black voters in Georgia than did Hillary Clinton, for example. Just 59 percent of black voters went to the polls in 2016, down from 66 percent in 2012. “If [Abrams] has the potential to be the first black female governor in the country, that might be a rallying call for African American voters in the state,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.

I met Keaton at a gathering of the Gwinnett Democrats, which was held in a suite in a dying mall in suburban Georgia. Gwinnett is one of the most rapidly diversifying counties in the country, as well as one of the fastest-growing counties, population-wise: It has grown 14 percent since 2010, and it is now one of the most populous counties in Georgia. It is another example of why Democrats are hoping they can turn Georgia blue sooner than pundits think. The county’s black population grew 30 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to Frey. That’s partly because today’s black migrants to the South are often ending up in suburbs that a decade or two ago were predominantly white, says Pendergrass. Gwinnett County’s population was 91 percent white in 1990—by 2015, it was 42 percent white, according to the Pew Research Center. The Gwinnett Democrats are courting people who aren’t traditional suburban residents—blue and white posters in the suite read “Gwinnett Democrats, We Stand for Diversity.” Collages on the wall featured black leaders like Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, and Shirley Chisholm. Gwinnett was one of the six “reverse pivot” counties nationally—counties that chose Republican presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012, but voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Two other reverse pivot counties were also in suburban Atlanta.) Before that, it had not chosen a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. “We’re going to win reelection from here on out,” the Gwinnett Democrats party chair, Gabe Okoye, said, as he called the meeting to order, looking out over a few dozen attendees who were both black and white, and young and old. A few black college students showed up, joining the meeting for the first time. One older black woman brought her granddaughter.

Gwinnett and the northern suburbs of Atlanta are also where Democratic strategists are hoping to flip state legislative seats. Adrienne White, the migrant from Virginia, is also the chair of Red Clay Democrats, a group trying to jumpstart Georgia’s progressive young professionals’ involvement in politics. She says this year is Democrats’ first chance to win seats that have long been Republican. Previously, Republicans had run unopposed for those seats, but this year, she said, Republican incumbents aren’t running again—perhaps because they see the writing on the wall in their majority-minority districts—and fresh Democratic and Republican candidates are running against each other. These seats include the Georgia 48th district Senate seat, the Georgia 51st district House seat, and the Georgia 79th district House seat. There are 14 districts, she told me, that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 but a Republican held the state seat. “That’s potential opportunity,” she told me. Georgia’s 7th Congressional District is also centered mostly in Gwinnett County, and Democrats are hoping to give Republican incumbent Rob Woodall a competitive race. Democrats are also running in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District against Republican Karen Handel, who narrowly defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, 52 to 48 percent, last year. Two Democrats will face off in a runoff in July to see who will run against Handel; one of those two Democrats is projected to be Lucy McBath, a gun-control activist whose black son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a gas station by a man objecting to the music he was playing in his car.

That Democrats are even running in these districts is a sea change from a few years ago, and one that would not have been possible without the increasing diversity of these regions. Bianca Keaton, the Washington, D.C., migrant, said she got involved in politics in Gwinnett because she was surprised how few Democrats were on the ballot. (Despite its diversity, Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners is still completely white, and one of its commissioners caused an uproar last year when he wrote a Facebook post calling Civil Rights leader John Lewis a “racist pig.”) This year, though, Okoye told me, Democrats are running in all the state Senate district seats in Gwinnett, and also in all the School Board and County Commission seats that are up this year—previously, Republicans had run unopposed.

Of course, it could be a long time before Democrats regain control of the state legislature. Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, predicts that might not happen until the mid 2020s. But Republicans’ support is definitely eroding as the state gets more diverse, he said. “The situation is that the Republican Party has crested in Georgia and is now sliding downhill,” he said. “They’ve maxed out in terms of their share of the vote.” In 2006, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Sonny Perdue, got 58 percent of the vote—by 2014, the Republican gubernatorial Nathan Deal, an incumbent, won with just 53 percent of the vote.

It’s possible that Democrats could lose some moderate voters by focusing on more progressive issues. One black migrant told me she was much more liberal than her Democratic neighbors, who didn’t seem interested in public transportation because so many people in Georgia are used to driving themselves, and who support charter schools. Some of Georgia’s diversity also comes from an increase in Latino and Asian voters, who aren’t as reliably Democratic as black people.

What will be key this November, Bullock said, is whether Abrams’s campaign—and other Democrats on the ballot—can get black voters to the polls. It was black voter turnout that helped Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, and that helped Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in a special election for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat last year—Jones won 98 percent of black women. Black people make up about 32 percent of eligible voters in Georgia, according to Frey, of Brookings. If black turnout is high, and white turnout low, and black people make up about 37 percent of people who vote, Abrams might have a chance, Bullock said. That would mean more than half of registered black voters need to come out and vote, he said. The black turnout rate in 2014 was just 40.6 percent, Bullock said.

But Stacey Abrams’s campaign says it has been focusing on turnout from the very beginning. “We know that in order to turn Georgia blue, we needed to build infrastructure in these communities early and engage meaningfully with voters about the issues that impact them in every part of the state,” Priyanka Mantha, Abrams’s spokeswoman, said. The campaign started reaching out to voters a year ago, she told me. Previous Democratic campaigns didn’t embrace minorities, she said, whether it was the LGBT community or the rural black community. Abrams, she said, is. The campaign is not taking potential voters for granted, she said, but also trying to put forward an inclusive message that appeals to people that have long been ignored in Georgia politics. That includes white voters, too. Democrats in the South know all too well that demographics alone may not be enough to turn a state blue—Texas is majority-minority, but Republicans are still in power. Georgia Democrats are hoping things go different with the black vote.