Five months after Republicans swept every statewide seat in sight, 151 days after Democrat Roy Barnes was given that ungentle push back to the courtroom, the manager of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign this weekend expressed what many would dismiss as a fantasy.
“If you look at the new census numbers, you would think that Georgia would be in play,” Jim Messina told The New York Times. “You would definitely think that Arizona would be in play — as I think it is. Those are states where we didn’t play in last time.”
Sunstroke is one possible explanation for the young man’s remarks, except that temperatures in Chicago haven’t yet escaped the 50s.
An easy diagnosis was further complicated on Tuesday by a survey of Georgia voters conducted by Public Policy Polling — a respectable North Carolina outfit. It declared that former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has not yet formally announced his Atlanta-based GOP candidacy, could lose the state in a match-up with Obama.
The president leads Gingrich, 46 to 45 percent, according to the poll — a statistically insignificant difference, given a 3.5 percent margin of error. So call it a tie. Republican Mitt Romney wins a hypothetical match-up with Obama, as does Mike Huckabee. Herman Cain, who is likely to challenge Gingrich for the title of favorite son of the Georgia GOP, does not.
According to the poll, 47 percent of Georgia voters approve of Obama’s performance as president, while 48 disapprove. Obama earned 47 percent of the Georgia vote in 2008. The numbers, the poll’s authors say, suggest that Georgia may be the state most likely to flip toward Obama in 2012.
Those guffaws you just heard come from the Republican camp, where such ideas are dismissed as happy talk aimed at campaign contributors.
They rightly note the GOP dominance here. “I think the Democrats might tone down their expectations. Just dial it back a little bit,” said Rick Tyler, spokesman for Gingrich, who was saddled — in this latest poll, as in others — with the heavy baggage of a long career and a complicated personal life.
But baggage, other GOP voices argue, doesn’t matter in Georgia.
This is the place where former congressman Nathan Deal — burdened by an ethics investigation and troubling personal finances — won the governorship with ease when Republicans tied Obama to Barnes like a tin can to a dog’s tail. “Roybama” was a key phrase.
It became a racially polarizing contest. In the end, fewer than one in five white voters picked Barnes.
If Georgia kicked Barnes like a stray cur last November, the thinking goes, what will it do to the tin can next year?
“There are no longer any statewide-elected Democrats in Georgia. There’s no bench. Who’s going to greet Air Force One? I mean, seriously,” said Dan McLagan, a GOP veteran of several statewide campaigns.
But Democrats like Messina are indeed serious when it comes to Georgia as a presidential playground. It’s all about those census numbers.
Political contests in the South have long been settled by various combinations of black and white voters. For Democrats, the winning formula has been around 95 percent of African-American voters and 35 percent of white voters.
But a third element has entered the mix in the last 10 years. Of the 1.5 million people Georgia added, two-thirds were either Hispanic or non-white. Some were Asian. All are members of demographic groups that lean toward the Democratic column.
Black voters made up 28 percent of the vote last November.
But figures from the U.S. Census show that — when residents of other hues are added — Georgia’s minority population shoots up to 37 percent. Which, some Democratic strategists say, means the state might be won with less than 30 percent support from non-Hispanic white voters.
In Virginia, Democrats have pushed Tim Kaine, the former governor and chairman of the national party, into the race for U.S. Senate, partly to boost Obama’s chances there. The Democratic National Convention will be held in North Carolina, another possibility.
“Georgia is a much better place for [Obama] to pick up electoral votes,” argued Chris Carpenter, who was Barnes’ campaign manager last year — and now runs Peachtree Battle Group, a strategy firm.
The 2010 census has increased Georgia’s electoral votes to 16, surpassing North Carolina. Georgia’s African-American population is larger, and the city of Atlanta offers more college-educated white voters who are more likely to vote for Obama, Carpenter said. Even if they didn’t vote for Barnes.
That PPP poll adds another thought: 52 percent of Georgia voters under age 65 actually approve of the job that Obama has done as president. The fact that 68 percent of senior citizens disapprove is what hurts the president — and may prove too large a hurdle next year.
But the future is another story.
“As whites who grew up in the segregation era die out over the next decade or two, this state should start looking a lot ‘purpler’ than its red tinge in recent election cycles would suggest,” writes Tom Jensen of PPP.
__- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider