2010 census, Atlanta demographics and Georgia elections

Georgia Election & Census Map ComparisonEven the most casual observer understands the 2010 census — which shows shifting Atlanta demographics — will lead to profound changes in the political landscape. Figuring out exactly how those changes will shape Georgia elections is the part that requires some brain power and a crystal ball.

I’m thinking about this today because the Georgia Assembly is nearing the end of this year’s session and our political attention will soon shift to redistricting and, of course, the 2012 election. My weekend reading also uncovered a thought-provoking article from CNN on the “8 political takeaways from the census” which led me down this rabbit hole. More on that in a bit.

At first glance, the election map looks very ugly for Georgia Democrats. When looking at the Georgia counties Barack Obama won in 2008 compared to the counties that have grown in population over the past decade, you would think the Democrats have lost Georgia forever. There are too many counties Obama won that also show a loss in population. And there are plenty of John McCain counties that show an increase in population.

This can’t be good. Right?

But I take exception with that line of logic for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that the census data is showing growth from 2000 to 2010 and not from 2008 to 2012. The elections were held well within this window of growth so much of it is already reflected in the 2008 results.

Another reason is that the map doesn’t tell us who is moving into the high-population growth areas. There is evidence of outmigration of African-American populations from the city into the suburbs. In addition, there is a reverse migration of African-Americans from northern rust belt cities back to the South. Census numbers show African-Americans with the highest percentage living in the South since 1960. Other minority populations are growing in the suburban and exurban areas. How will this growth change elections? Are these counties getting redder or turning purple?

Finally, Georgia hasn’t used the county-unit system since 1962. Our electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote, not the winner of the most counties. In 2008 Obama picked up 47 percent of the vote across Georgia and won 34 counties. There were 11 Georgia counties in 2008 that were within five percentage points of going blue, including Cobb, Henry and Lowndes.

I’m not arguing that Obama will carry Georgia in 2012. In fact, I doubt he will. But there are some interesting trends in specific counties that don’t show up as red or blue on the maps above.

What I want to highlight today is the notion that demographics are a funny thing and Georgia Democrats may have more wind in our back than many people expect. Looking at them today, you might say the Georgia Democrats have hit rock bottom. With hard work, coordination and a little bit of time, Georgia Democrats may come roaring back.

Let’s look at a few takeaways from that CNN.com article that prompted all this:

Republicans need to improve relations with Hispanics. Fast.
The single biggest headline from the 2010 Census may be the explosion in Hispanic growth. More than half of U.S. population growth in the last decade is due to growth among Hispanics; nearly one in six Americans now identify as Hispanic.

Democrats need to compete harder in red states
Of the 12 new U.S. House seats that will be created this year because of population shifts revealed by the 2010 Census, eight are in solidly red states: Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.

The battleground states are moving south and west
It wasn’t long ago that Ohio was considered the central battleground in presidential politics. Winning the Buckeye State put George W. Bush over the top in 2004.

But Ohio and other Rust Belt battlegrounds have seen their populations plateau, shifting electorate clout to the West and parts of the South, like Georgia and North Carolina. The 2010 Census numbers will take two House seats each from Ohio and New York and give seats to states like Georgia and Arizona.

Our politics are moving from country to city, or at least near the city
More than 80% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas — places with cities of 50,000 or more people. An additional 10%, the 2010 Census found, live in so-called micropolitan areas, organized around towns of 10,000 to 50,000. Both kinds of population-dense areas saw big growth in the last decade, with greater Houston and metro Atlanta watching their numbers surge by around 25 percent.

When taken together, we see a few things that show the Republicans have their work cut out for them.

  1. Georgia’s Hispanic population is growing as fast as the rest of the nation. The Hispanic population in Georgia grew 96 percent in the last decade. Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic in the state. Fighting for anti-immigration bills is not a great way for Georgia Republicans to secure their future.
  2. With Georgia’s population growing, some of those new voters will be traditional Midwest and Northwest Democrats. These voters will be a very diverse group. Republicans will need to acknowledge this influx of non-traditional voters at some point.
  3. The national money once spent in Ohio may soon shift to North Carolina, the location of the 2010 Democratic National Convention, and eventually to Georgia. The Georgia Republican Party will soon see the brightness of a national spotlight. How will the party hold up under this scrutiny?
  4. With the shift away from rural dominance, anything can happen. Traditional voters are not in traditional places. Will this create a jump ball effect in the next election?

The bigger question that comes out of this discussion is whether Georgia Democrats are prepared to take advantage of this apparent state of flux. I can’t answer that today but I know we’ll find out over the next 18 months.

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