Why a key Georgia country flipped from red to blue—and what it means for Democrats
Joe Biden's win in Georgia was surely the most surprising red change of state in the 2020 presidential election. Examination of the strikingly rapid transformation of Gwinnett County, the state's largest suburb, shows how this disruption happened and provides insight into the impending outflows of the US Senate.
By the mid-20th century, Gwinnett was largely rural, 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, with a population of just 32,000, more than 95% of whom were white. Just under 2% of the population had completed four years of college and only 25% of the workforce had professional or managerial jobs. Who could have imagined that Gwinnett County is now home to nearly 950,000 people and one of the most diverse counties in the country?
Gwinnett's path would be shaped by nearby Atlanta, which lost 162,000 white residents between 1960 and 1980. Gwinnett saw the white population grow by 102,000 over the same period. The county also grew with the arrival of thousands of white migrants from other parts of the country who were drawn to metropolitan Atlanta's dynamic economy. By 1990, Gwinnett County had about 357,000 people, more than 9 out of 10 whites.
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Gwinnett's growth would accelerate even if the newcomers became more diverse. By 1990, Metro Atlanta, including suburbs like Gwinnett, had become a top destination for African Americans migrating from other parts of the United States. Meanwhile, the appeal of the suburbs accelerated the brain drain from Atlanta. The African American population in Gwinnett more than doubled in the 1990s, and the black population grew 140% over the next decade. While that influx continued and many Gwinnett whites moved to decidedly whiter suburbs such as Counties Barrow and Walton, by 2020 30% of Gwinnett's residents were black.
This is only part of the story of Gwinnett's diversification. The explosion in construction jobs generated by the 1996 Olympics, combined with a decline in employment in the Texas and Louisiana oil fields, impacted immigrants from Latin America, making up 20% of the county's population today . The fiery pursuit of foreign investment, reflected in the current number of more than 600 foreign-owned companies in the county, also attracted a steadily growing stream of Asian and Asian-American workers who enjoyed the high-profile schools and the relatively low cost of living the county liked. As of 2020, residents of Asian descent made up 13% of Gwinnett's population.
These arrivals made Gwinnett more affluent and diverse, but were not universally welcomed by the non-Hispanic white population. While Gwinnett officially became a non-white-majority county around 2007, it wasn't until 2018 that representatives of other ethnic groups managed to win seats on the county commission and education committee.
White resistance had partisan implications. Gwinnett became a Republican stronghold in the 1964 presidential election, and the county's voters left the GOP camp only once over the next 50 years to support compatriot Georgian Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.
But as the county's non-white population grew, the Democrats gained ground in the Gwinnett presidential election.
Barack Obama, just five points behind John McCain in Georgia in 2008, captured Newton, Rockdale and Douglas, three other metro Atlanta boroughs whose non-white populations were on the rise. Obama maintained this suburban beachhead in 2012, and four years later Hillary Clinton took in Gwinnett and two other diversifying counties.
With Democratic hopes bolstered by Clinton's appearance, African-American lawmaker Stacey Abrams ran for governor in 2018. They just lost to Republican opponent Brian Kemp - but defeated him in Gwinnett by more than 14 percentage points. Abrams' performance convinced the national Democratic Party to make serious presidential efforts in Georgia.
But rather than making futile efforts to bring whites back to their knees, Democrats would focus on forging a growing and more politically engaged non-white population into a strong political force in the state. To that end, Abrams and her allies fought the repression of voters, expanded registrations and increased voter turnout. The effort was critical to Biden, who two years ago had essentially the same counties as Abrams while surpassing their statewide vote by more than 550,000.
This was the culmination of a rapid political reversal in Gwinnett. Obama lost the county by 9 points in 2012, only to win Biden by 18 points just eight years later.
This turnaround cannot be explained by the “hot attitude” that Biden owed his national victory to disgusted Republicans in the suburban white establishment who crossed the party lines instead of voting for Donald Trump but otherwise stuck to the GOP candidates. Trump certainly lost some support among Georgia suburban white voters. But ultimately, it was a racially and culturally diverse group of relative newcomers to the suburbs that the Democrats overdone.
Sure, the experts are right that Biden won in the suburbs - the state's three most populous suburban boroughs (Dekalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett) plus Fulton, where Atlanta is located, accounted for more than half of Biden's vote wins over Hillary Clinton's total four years ago. But it's also true that Cobb is the only one of these counties where non-whites aren't a majority. (And Cobb misses being mostly not white by a percentage point).
There are limits to what can be deduced from comparing the percentages of voter registration to the proportions of actual votes, but in Gwinnett County the correlation is too tight to ignore: whites now make up 40% of the county's registered voters, and Trump won 40% of the election. Likewise, Carolyn Bourdeaux's defeated Republican opponent in the Seventh District of Georgia, the only House of Representatives in the state that the Democrats had turned over, received an equal share of the vote in Gwinnett as Trump.
Furthermore, the perceived national pattern of suburban white Republicans voting for Biden but the GOP in other races certainly did not hold up in Gwinnett. Instead, the Democrats made big profit margins in the two Senate competitions, while more white Republicans were overthrown from non-white candidates in local matchups, including the election of Gwinnett's first black sheriff. Here Democrats did not invade the traditional republican base, they simply overwhelmed them.
Even so, the Republicans in the US Senate runoff in January are doubling their presidential strategy to target their message to the die-hard Trumpers, casting Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as socializing socialists, communists or anarchists who hate America.
Republicans are betting that the traditional wisdom that non-white turnout will drop sharply in runoff elections will apply again. However, a lot has changed in the non-white population, especially in the suburbs.
If the Georgia Democrats prevail in these two races, they will have done an even better job than they did on November 3rd. They will also have shown the rest of the country that the demographic forces changing politics in Georgia could fuel continued democratic success in rapidly diversifying suburban areas nationwide.
James C. Cobb is the Editor at Zócalo Public Square and Spalding Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. His latest book is The South and America Since World War II. This piece was written for the Zócalo public square.
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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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