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Peach State Pits Minority Voters Vs. GOP Lean

In a wave election year for Democrats, in a state with a substantial minority population and as he won the presidency in a landslide, Barack Obama lost Georgia to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 5 points.

So it would appear to be an extremely far-fetched idea that there is a path to victory for him in Georgia in 2012, after the 2010 elections where the GOP swept every statewide race for the first time since Reconstruction. But Democrats and Republicans with a knowledge of Georgia political trends tell Roll Call that they see a path — though still unlikely — for the president to win the Peach State.

“If Obama is going to win a red state, this is his most likely pickoff state,” longtime Georgia Republican political consultant Mark Rountree said. “If he’s going to be making a play for one, I would be looking for him to be making a play here first.” Rountree, skeptical it could be done, believes Georgia’s demographic shifts have made an Obama victory there possible.

A Chicago-based source with knowledge of the Obama campaign said the re-election team would not ignore Georgia.

“There have been positive trends in the state demographics since the last presidential election,” the source said. “And that makes it a state to look at.”

Specifically, the number of voting-age Hispanics in Georgia grew by 240,000 from 2000 to 2010 — an extraordinary increase of more than 80 percent. Coupled with a large population of black voters who overwhelmingly favored Obama in 2008, there might be a formula for the Democrats to capture the state.

“2008 wasn’t the high-water mark with African-American voters,” said Chris Huttman, a Democratic consultant and pollster in Georgia. “It’s the new floor.”

Thirty percent of 2008 Georgia voters were black, but that number dropped to 28 percent in 2010 without Obama on the ballot. New census data shows growing minority populations beyond just African-Americans.

In 2010, 7.5 percent of the voting-age population was Hispanic and 3.3 percent was Asian. In addition to Georgia’s growth in voting-age Latinos, there was also an 80 percent increase in Asians from 2000 to 2010. The minority population boom is one reason Georgia is gaining a seat in the House through reapportionment. Demographers expect these groups to continue growing.

So do Democrats. Obama campaign sources and others looking at the national landscape believe growth among Latino and black voters is the key to the president’s re-election.

A Democratic source familiar with get-out-the-vote efforts in the state told Roll Call that “the math is there” for an Obama win.

The source said Obama would start with 31 percent or 32 percent of the vote, based on high black-voter turnout.

“If there is a concerted effort to register Hispanic voters, there’s two, three, four points right there,” the source said.

The Democratic source also believes without a statewide race on the ballot in 2012, there won’t be much to drive GOP voters to the polls.

Assuming Obama picks up almost all of the black vote and at least half of other minority voters, he still needs somewhere between a quarter and a third of the white vote to win. That won’t be easy.

In 2008, according to exit polls, only 23 percent of white voters in Georgia pulled the lever for Obama.

“With Obama, it’s hard to see him getting the rural whites, but does he maybe get some of the suburban ones if they think the GOP nominee is too conservative? It’s hard to say he doesn’t have a chance,” a knowledgeable Georgia-based source said. “But it’s just hard to see if you didn’t vote for him last time, why you vote for him this time unless the GOP candidate is too far out there?”

There is, of course, the possibility that Obama would find himself with a challenger with Georgia roots, which could wipe out any chance of competing there. Two candidates vying for the GOP nomination, businessman Herman Cain and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, are Georgia natives.

Rountree, who is also a GOP pollster, said his firm conducted a mid-May auto-dial poll of 1,577 likely Georgia voters showing an uphill climb for Obama.

It found 43 percent supported Obama’s re-election and 47 percent thought it was time to elect someone else. But when the survey put the president head-to-head with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), Obama led 43 percent to
39 percent.

“Mitt Romney is not going to excite Republican voters down here,” said former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 2008. “That is a danger, that it would suppress Republican turnout.”

In 2008, the Obama campaign briefly considered making a concerted push in Georgia. It figured demographics and Barr’s presence on the ballot could be on its side. But it never spent much money or devoted much of Obama’s time to the state, and in the end he lost to McCain
47 percent to 52.2 percent.

Indications are that the president will compete in Georgia, but it’s not clear to what extent the Obama campaign will consider it a battleground.

A source with knowledge of the Obama campaign said hundreds of volunteers have attended phone banking events in Georgia. Those volunteers have made “thousands” of calls since the president formally announced his re-election bid, the source said.

But Barr is extremely skeptical, given the heavily Republican tilt of the state.

“In politics anything is possible, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he could successfully carry Georgia in 2012,” he said.

There are other factors besides winning the state’s 16 Electoral College votes, however, that might make it smart for the Obama campaign to take a good look at putting the Peach State in play. It could be considered a head-fake to force the GOP to spend cash in a state viewed previously as safe.

“If the Republican feels like they have to be on Atlanta TV to lock down Georgia, that’s $600,000 a week” the candidate could be spending elsewhere, Huttman said.

There’s the literal payoff from putting the state in play: increased enthusiasm among donors. Democratic political consultant Tharon Johnson, who ran Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s (D) campaign, said he thinks the president is going to be “very competitive” in the state.

Johnson also said Obama would be “very focused on Georgia because Atlanta is a place that the president can raise a lot of money.”

The Obama campaign raised $11.4 million from Georgia in the 2008 cycle, most of it from the metro Atlanta area.

Atlanta already is a hot fundraising spot for Democrats, with both first lady Michelle Obama and White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, attending fundraisers there last month.

Joel McElhannon, a well-connected Atlanta-based Republican strategist, doubts Democrats can win the state. But he said he admires the strategy of attempting to put Georgia in play.

“If they’re successful, they get Republican candidates more focused on protecting their base than going after swing territories themselves. It’s very smart ball on their part, and they deserve credit for the hype. But the hype doesn’t match reality,” McElhannon said.

He believes the 47 percent Obama earned in Georgia in 2008 was the high-water mark, and predicts the president won’t be able to retain support in 2012 from white voters who are registered as independents.

McElhannon added: “I got a better shot of winning the Powerball than he does of winning Georgia.”