Around Atlanta, Many White Suburbanites Are Sticking With Trump
Nationwide, such voters are tilting toward Biden. But in Georgia, the president’s law-and-order message seems to be keeping the bulk of them in his column.
Natalie Pontius is an interior decorator, married with two children and a University of Georgia alumna. She was born and raised in Atlanta, but moved to the city’s exurbs with her family several years ago, drawn to the region’s quality of public education. In November, she’s voting for Donald Trump.
The decision was a no-brainer. “The riots, the push to defund the police — that’s not the direction our country needs to go,” Ms. Pontius, 48, said. “I feel like the Democratic Party is continually trying to come up with ways to divide us.”
She believes that Mr. Trump, on the other hand, “is looking out for me as a person.”
National polling has consistently shown that white college-educated voters are supporting Joseph R. Biden Jr. for president. But in Georgia, even as major demographic and population shifts have pulled the state leftward in recent years, a majority of such voters remain firmly in Mr. Trump’s camp.
Recent polling shows that these voters have helped Trump maintain his razor-thin lead over Mr. Biden for Georgia’s suburban vote. Their continued support is critical to the president’s chances in the state, whose 16 electoral votes are essential for his path to re-election and where polling shows the two candidates neck-and-neck overall.
Georgia may be in the Deep South, but a steady, decades-long influx of young, educated and nonwhite voters, coupled with a shrinking population of white voters without degrees — whose support helped fuel Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 — have put the state increasingly in play for Democrats. From historic turnout rates among infrequent and first-time voters in support of Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial race, to Lucy McBath’s triumph over Karen Handel in Newt Gingrich’s former congressional district that same year, down-ballot Democrats have proven the party’s viability in the Trump era.
For the president, that has made maintaining the loyalty of white, Republican-leaning degree holders like Ms. Pontius all the more important. In a New York Times/Siena College survey on Tuesday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were tied at 45 percent among likely voters in Georgia, but Mr. Trump led Mr. Biden among college-educated white voters by 12 percentage points (though that is a significant contraction from 2016, when Mr. Trump won the same group by 20 percentage points).
According to more than a dozen such voters in and around Atlanta, what’s currently keeping them from jumping ship is not so much a deep affinity for Mr. Trump, but a fear of “lawlessness” taking root should Democrats take the White House. Trump has spent much of the past few months stoking those fears, his campaign sending texts with such warnings as “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN THE SUBURBS!”
Polling suggests that in many battleground states where protests turned violent this summer, that message hasn’t broken through. But in Georgia, many voters said Mr. Trump’s “law-and-order” appeals had struck a nerve, and almost all cited a fear that the call among some progressives to “defund the police” would materialize during a Biden presidency.
Mr. Biden has said that he has no desire to defund the police, and Amanda Newman acknowledges that. But Ms. Newman, 51, who lives in the suburbs and works at a law firm in midtown Atlanta, also thinks Mr. Biden’s personal views are irrelevant — that a vote for Mr. Biden is in fact a vote for his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, as well as for progressives in the Democratic Party like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have pushed for policies like the Green New Deal. “I don’t think Joe Biden has an opinion until somebody tells him what it is,” she said.
Ms. Newman said she’s been put off by Mr. Trump at multiple moments in the past four years, calling him at times “unpresidential” and comparing him to “a 2-year-old pitching a fit in a candy store.” But she said she feared how “radical” and “crazy” the Democrats had become.
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“The building I work in, they destroyed some of the windows on the ground floor,” she said. “I can’t imagine being a single female having to drive home from work at night or anywhere in Atlanta.”
Atlanta saw its share of unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police in May: Violent protesters set fire to and looted retail stores, restaurants, museums and more across a large swath of downtown. And in February, it was in South Georgia that armed white men pursued and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, prompting outrage nationwide.
“It’s been very unnerving,” said Lori Mullee, 54, referring not to police brutality or Mr. Arbery’s death but the “riots in my backyard.” Ms. Mullee, a University of Georgia graduate, works in marketing and lives in Stone Mountain, a small city in the Atlanta suburbs that in August was essentially put on lockdown as white supremacist groups and far-left counterprotesters clashed at the city’s Confederate monument.
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Ms. Mullee said she used to exercise in the state park surrounding the monument, but no longer feels comfortable doing so. (As for the monument itself, she said she did not support efforts to “take down history.”) She is voting for Mr. Trump in part, she said, because she feels the left has stoked division in cities like hers and beyond.
It’s not all that surprising that educated white voters in Georgia support Mr. Trump. As a recent article in FiveThirtyEight noted, such voters are traditionally more conservative than in other parts of the country. But according to Michael Thurmond, the Democratic chief executive of DeKalb County, it also reflects the degree to which Mr. Trump’s fear-based message has penetrated the electorate. Mr. Biden’s success in Georgia, he said, depends on whether he is seen as taking that fear seriously.
Democrats could still chip away at Mr. Trump’s margins with such voters, Mr. Thurmond argued, in part by dispelling the notion that supporting racial justice and opposing “rioting and looting” are somehow at odds.
“You don’t have to choose,” he said. “But Republicans know that you can sell fear at a very low price. And they’ve taken the defund-the-police message to mean we don’t want any police, which is ridiculous.”
At the same time, Mr. Thurmond said, “we haven’t done a very good job in defining what it does mean.”
Mr. Thurmond pointed to Ms. McBath as someone trying to wrest the issue back from Republicans. She once more faces Ms. Handel in her re-election bid in Georgia’s Sixth District, among the best-educated congressional districts in the country, and has repeatedly emphasized that she does not want to defund the police. “That has never come out of my mouth,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.
That Mr. Biden’s own insistence against defunding the police hasn’t resonated as deeply with white degree-holders in Georgia is in part a function of resources. With multiple true battleground states up for grabs, from Florida to Pennsylvania, Democratic strategists acknowledged that there’s only a moderate incentive to divert cash and time to places like Georgia and Texas, tight as the polling may be. Ultimately, Mr. Biden has a number of paths to 270 electorate votes should he lose Georgia; Mr. Trump, however, has a much narrower path.
Mr. Trump has visited the state multiple times since taking office, including a rally on Friday in Macon. September alone saw campaign swings from Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. On Sept. 25, the president appeared in Atlanta as part of his Black Voices for Trump initiative, which he launched in the state last fall. During the Republican National Convention, the campaign featured Vernon Jones, a Black Democratic state representative supporting Mr. Trump. Following the convention, Mr. Jones called on his party to “condemn Black Lives Matter and then Antifa.”
Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia, is hopeful that the new Supreme Court vacancy will allow Mr. Trump to solidify any incremental gains he has made through his law-and-order message.
“You’re hearing people now saying that they don’t like Trump, but that the Supreme Court opening has reminded them why it’s important to have a Republican in the White House,” he said. “It’s another example of people who were wavering before, but are now back firmly with Trump.”
Republicans are also confident that there remain many college-educated white voters whose support for Mr. Trump is not reflected in the polls. Indeed, some voters interviewed for this story from the Sixth District said images of the riots unfolding across the country this fall had bolstered their support for Mr. Trump, but declined to speak on-the-record, saying they feared being stigmatized by their colleagues or neighbors.
“I do think the polling here is very deceptive,” said Jake Evans, 31, an attorney in Atlanta. “Especially in Atlanta, you’ll go to dinner with moderate or right-leaning voters who would never say in their workplace that they’re voting for Trump, but when you’re in private, it’s all day, every day.”
Republican and Democratic pollsters alike, while acknowledging their plausibility, believe there is little evidence that “hidden” Trump voters are numerous enough to affect an election outcome. That Mr. Trump’s campaign seems to be banking on them at least in part, however, to deliver a win in Georgia, is yet more testament to how in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the White House since 1992, every vote counts.
“I do think Trump is going to win our electoral votes,” Mr. Robinson predicted. “But it’s not going to be a landslide.”