As the election nears, political campaigns across the country have laser-focused on the proverbial swing voter. But for Democrats, both in the presidential race and congressional contests, swing voters are not just those constituents who sometimes vote red and sometimes vote blue. Rather, the swing voters that Democrats are really trying to win over are those who sometimes vote and sometimes don’t.
After all, the demise of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 was sealed in large part by low voter turnout. While Donald Trump was able to excite a large enough portion of the electorate that they actually went out and voted for him, Hillary struggled to gain the enthusiasm that Trump or even Obama’s coalitions brought to the ballot box. Many people just didn’t vote at all, causing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to elect the Republican candidate for the first time in decades.
But this year, many think things will be different. As traditional Republican strongholds like Georgia and Arizona enter into the battleground category, Democratic strategists hope they can convince even people who have never voted before to show up and cast their ballots for the left.
The Abrams Playbook
In 2016, over 100 million Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to. That’s more than the number of individuals who voted for either presidential candidate. In brief, the largest voting bloc in the American electorate is made up of non-voters.
But in Georgia, the percent of eligible voters who actually participated in the 2016 election was slightly above the national average. About 60% of eligible Georgia voters cast ballots, while only 55% of eligible voters took part nationally. It’s a slim difference, but enough to give liberal movements hope in an increasingly diverse state.
In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 50,000 votes of winning the governor’s race, though she ultimately lost to Republican Brian Kemp. Still, the razor-thin margin of Kemp’s victory was the result of a grassroots movement to register and turn-out Democratic voters in the Peach State. More specifically, Abrams, the first Black woman to ever be nominated for governor by a major party, invested in communities of color in Georgia. That includes Black voters, as well as the state’s quickly-growing Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Latino communities. These are communities that typically support Democratic policy, but are less likely to vote than their white counterparts. Now, the Abrams playbook is the heart of liberal efforts to flip Georgia blue.
Turnout is Key
Georgia has a lot more on the ballot than just the presidential race. In fact, due to a sitting senator’s retirement, there are two open Senate seats at play in the state. Organizers hope that, by engaging nonvoters, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and at least one of the two Democratic Senate hopefuls can eke out a victory. To do that voter turnout will be crucial to Democratic success. And with current polls showing Biden and Trump at a virtual tie in the state, the candidate who can get more Georgians to actually cast a vote will win.
Nse Ufot is the executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group dedicated to increasing voter turnout among the state’s new residents. Such residents are more likely to be young, immigrant, and/or people of color, which most pundits would assume means they lean Democratic. But Ufot says that is not necessarily the case, and that her organization is dedicated to engaging turnout regardless of party affiliation.
Experts who observe nonvoting populations warn that the work of flipping a red state blue is complex. And predicting the inevitable voting habits of a certain demographic is impossible.
In the same vein, Ufot says that convincing nonvoters to participate in the election takes more than a “five-minute conversation” on someone’s front porch. Rather, she says it demands “a sustained campaign that requires smart targeting, messaging and research.”
Still, as all eyes turn to Georgia and other southern battlegrounds, first time voters could be the difference that delivers wins to Democrats for the first time in a generation.