Can Hillary Clinton really win in Georgia?

Published: Aug. 22, 2016 at 6:14 AM EDT
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By: CBS News

August 22, 2016

ATLANTA (CBS News) -- The last time a Democrat won Georgia in a presidential election, the year was 1992 and the candidate was Bill Clinton.

Could it go blue again in 2016 with another Clinton at the top of the ticket?

Hearing the words “Georgia” and “battleground state” in the same sentence seems almost inconceivable to modern political observers, for whom the Southern state has long been seen as a Republican stronghold on the national level. But the combination of Donald Trump’s candidacy and the long-shifting demographics of the state have some Democrats thinking it could finally be within reach—enough so that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is opting to invest additional resources into the state.

It would still certainly be an uphill climb for Clinton and her campaign, according to veteran Georgia operatives on both sides of the aisle. But it’s within the realm of possibility, a testament to just how much Trump as the Republican nominee has the potential to alter the map of true battlegrounds this fall.

Questions about the Peach State’s competitiveness arose in August after a series of polling found the race to be close—including a CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released last week. In the CBS poll, Trump led Clinton by 4 points, which is within the margin of error. An early August poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Clinton leading outright: she bested Trump by 4 points in a two-way matchup, and by 3 points when the Libertarian and Green Party candidates were included.

Shortly after the AJC poll was released, Clinton’s campaign made it known that it was putting additional money and manpower into the state. The campaign sent Tracey Lewis, an alum of Michelle Nunn’s 2014 campaign, to run efforts there; according to the Associated Press, the initial investment in the state is six figures.

Here’s how the Democratic argument for the state works: Georgia, like its neighbors North Carolina and Virginia, is becoming younger and more diverse. In 2000, for example, African American voters made up 23 percent of the electorate; in 2012, that figure was up to 30 percent. The state also has a growing Hispanic population.

Democrats say their floor in the state hovers these days around 44 or 45 percent. If Clinton can reach Obama-level turnout among minority voters, that could get her another percentage point or two on Election Day—and coupled with the potential for modest gains among white, educated, moderate Republicans who are turned off by Trump, a narrow victory is not out of the question.

“There’s not really any growth potential for [Trump] with the white working class voters because they’ve already been aligned with Republicans,” said Jeff DeSantis, a veteran Democratic operative in the state who ran Michelle Nunn’s 2014 Senate campaign.

But it’s also true that Democrats have touted Georgia as an upcoming possibility for years now, including when Nunn ran in 2014—and have little to show for it in the way of victories. Then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign considered investing heavily there in 2008, the same year he won narrowly in North Carolina, but ultimately he lost the state to Arizona Sen. John McCain by 5 points. And four years later, in 2012, Mr. Obama lost the state by an even wider margin, taking 45 percent to GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 53 percent.

The problem for Democrats is that the state’s white voters, more so than in states with similar demographics, like North Carolina or Virginia, vote heavily for Republicans. In other words, Clinton couldn’t depend just on turning out the growing numbers of African American and Hispanic voters; she would also have to win a significantly higher percentage of the white vote there than Mr. Obama did in either of his campaigns.

“There is a very large and reliable base of Republican voters that remains very difficult for any Democrat to overcome,” said Anthony Salvanto, Director of Elections at CBS News. “It does look like it’s closer than we normally see Georgia—which is partly a reflection of some of the national movement—but actually getting over the hurdle [for Clinton] ... remains to be seen.”

In 2014, for example, Nunn’s campaign assessed that it would need to get somewhere in the realm of 30 percent of the white vote in order to be competitive—and ultimately fell short, losing the state by 8 points overall to Republican David Perdue.

“If we were going to beat the demographic trend … we needed to at least flip some people, and it wasn’t clear exactly where you go on that,” DeSantis said. “But [Trump] is sort of making it a little bit easier to decide what voters to talk to on the persuasion side.”

In a normal presidential cycle, these suburban moderate Republicans would be rank-and-file Republican voters; Democrats’ success depends on a rejection of Trump that’s so overwhelming that it drives substantial numbers of these moderates toward the other options. Otherwise, a statewide victory for Clinton will be difficult.

“Anything is in the realm of possibility—I mean, in 1992 Bill Clinton won Georgia because of [independent candidate] Ross Perot,” said Eric Tannenblatt, a veteran Republican consultant who worked with Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012. “But that being said, every other presidential election going back the last 30 years, with the exception of that one in 1992, the Republican has won—even in 1996 when Bill Clinton was running for re-election.”

It’s unclear just how big and how sustained an investment Democrats are planning to make there: so far, neither the Clinton campaign nor the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA are on the air in the state (and the Clinton camp has not indicated whether its investment in the state will include air time). But the very fact that it’s a possibility for Democrats, though, speaks to the way in which Trump as GOP nominee is potentially shifting the map for Republicans.

“If they can get in here and start plowing through the [voter] file and making contacts at the door and on the phone—and creating a sense that if you live in Georgia, your vote really matters if you’re a Democrat—they have a chance to have a big impact,” DeSantis said.