The 2014 elections offer Georgians and those watching the South an early ray of hope for an accelerated transformation of the state’s politics. Despite popular perception, the distance between Democrats and Republicans in the last few elections has been tantalizingly close: 300,000 vote gap for President Obama in 2012 and a 258,000 deficit for the Democratic nominee in 2010. In a state of nearly 6.5 million eligible voters, the question is not whether Georgia will turn blue but when. Contrary to demographers who point to 2020 for the tipping point, if we are able to harness the potential already here in the state, Georgia begins its transition in November.
In 2010, voter turnout was merely 40%, but with a premiere U.S. Senate race featuring nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn, most expect a higher turnout closer to 50%. In Georgia, 62% of the voting age population is comprised of the “Rising American Electorate”-- people of color, young people aged 18-29 and unmarried women. The electoral challenge lies in the issue of turn-out. While this group represents 53% of all registered voters, in 2010, they represented only 35% of the electorate.
The answer is clear but complex. Step one is the registration and engagement of a significant share of the Rising American Electorate, particularly the more than 1.3 million African Americans and Latinos who are unregistered, new to the state or inactive. This population, which would benefit from expansion of Medicaid, heavy investment in education and job training programs and tax policies that work, must be the targets of an intensive registration program.
Step two is connecting the dots in a non-presidential year. The drop-off in voters between presidential and non-presidential years for Democrats is more than 600,000 voters – more than sufficient to change the outcome of an election. Yet, until those voters understand the necessity of casting ballots in off-years and going all the way down the ballot, Republicans will continue to win by slim margins and foment hostile changes.
Republican registration is not increasing as quickly as Democratic engagement, but they have done a far superior job of explaining that the daily activities of government are decided in years like 2014. For progressive politics to have a voice and for Michelle Nunn and others to have a shot, our plan must include an education component that makes every election a presidential election.
Step three for Georgia’s revolution is getting out the vote. More than mail and phone calls, voters must be met on the doorstep, particularly the Rising American Electorate. This is a population so frequently ignored by politicians that we must meet them where they are. In 2012, the House Democratic Caucus ran a modest but ambitious election program that resulted in a 57% win rate in contests where we were routinely outspent.
If we expect those who have been isolated from our political system to engage, 2014 must be the year where we show we understand who and where they are. But, most of all, for Georgia to turn, we must articulate a vision the Rising American Electorate can share. Now is the time – and it is only the beginning.