Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Will President Obama Contest Georgia?

Aaron Gould Sheinin and Marcus K. Garner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution speculate that President Obama will not mount a large-scale effort to win the State of Georgia this year.  Should he?

In their March 16 article Obama Arrives in Atlanta for Campaign Swing Sheinin and Garner offer up several reasons why the President might concede Georgia to the Republican nominee this election cycle.  Among those reasons:
Obama spent nearly $4 million in Georgia in 2008, had 52 paid employees, opened 33 campaign offices and trained nearly 5,000 volunteers. He still lost to Republican John McCain by 5 percentage points. To put that another way, McCain spent hardly any money in the state, had zero staff or offices, and still won with 52 percent of the vote.
There are good reasons for the President to make the effort anyway.  If he were to invest some of his campaign's resources in Georgia he would enhance overall support for his domestic and foreign policies.  He would  also help to build the foundation for a stronger Democratic Party in the state and, in light of the signal importance of Georgia, the region as a whole.

Furthermore, despite the risk, the changing demographics of the State of Georgia indicate that he just might win.

In 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama by 5.2% of the vote in Georgia.  Over the past four years the composition of the state has changed in three important ways: the Hispanic population has grown, the African-American population has grown, and younger persons have reached the age of majority.  All of these changes should favor the President.

But to what extent?  Let's examine the data from the census bureau.

According to the U.S. Census data, between 2000 and 2010 the Hispanic population of the State of Georgia nearly doubled from 435,000 to 853,000.  This represents an increase from 5.3% to 8.8% of the population.  (Because the state as a whole witnessed a substantial increase in population, the percentage increase of Hispanics as a proportion of the population is smaller than the rate of increase in their numbers.) Over the same period of time the African-American population of the State of Georgia increased from 2,350,000 persons to 3,054,000 persons, representing an increase from 28.7% to 31.5% of the population.  Asian-Americans, Native Americans, other races, and persons of two or more races increased from 5.9% of the population to 7.1% of the population.  Also between 2000 and 2010 white persons declined from 65.1% to 59.7% of the population.  This was a shift of 5.4% over 10 years.  If this rate of change held steady between 2008 and 2012 it would represent an overall shift of  2.2% over four years.

In addition, every year people are born, die, or become one year older.  Each year about 150,000 young people in Georgia are born, another 150,000 turn 18, another 60,000 turn 65, and about 80,000 pass on.   While people in general may become more conservative as they age, every four years approximately 8% of the voting-age population in Georgia consists of people who turned 18 within the past four years.

To some extent these demographic changes overlap.  For example, young people in Georgia are far more likely to be Hispanic or African-American, so we must be careful not to "double-count" the changing demographics of persons newly arrived at voting age.  Varying rates of voter participation must also be taken into account.  Racial minorities and young people are substantially less likely to vote than older, white citizens.  Finally, not every young person or person of color is enamored of the President.  Perhaps only one-third of the change in racial and age demographics would represent a net gain for the President.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that over the last four years the electorate of the State of Georgia has changed to such an extent that it is very possible that if voters from the same demographic groups were to vote as they did in 2008, that in 2012 2.6% of voters would shift their allegiance in the Presidential race from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.  That would be enough to overcome John McCain's 2008 victory margin of 5.2%.

I don't mean to suggest that demographics is or should be the determining factor in how people vote.  We are to judge people by their character, not by the color of their skin, and choose our leaders by virtue of their intelligence, their experience, and their effectiveness, not because of their race, religion, or age.  But in making the political calculation of where a politician should invest limited political resources, the demographics of a region is a rational and legitimate factor that must be taken into account.

Georgia is or in the near future will be a swing state.  Both political parties will have to decide how to respond to that new reality.

Wilson Huhn teaches Constitutional Law at The University of Akron School of Law.

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