President Joe Biden was in Georgia on Sunday. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the civil rights pioneer once preached. The trip made a lot of sense, not just to pay tribute to King, but also because King helped lead the drive for equal voting rights for Black Americans.
The Peach State is also, in many ways, the place where the political importance of Black voters is clearest. They are one of the biggest reasons Georgia has swung from a red state to a purple one.
The current list of swing states in American politics mostly features places where Black voters don’t play an outsize role – states such as Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. Even in swing states where Black voters make up at least 10% of the voting public (e.g., Michigan and Pennsylvania), the Black portion of the electorate in the 2020 election was comparable to what it was nationwide (12%).
Georgia is the big exception. According to US Census data, 33% of 2020 presidential election voters in the state were Black. That ranked second nationally behind deep-red Mississippi. Georgia’s own records show that a slightly smaller 29% of 2020 voters whose race was known were Black (or 27% when we include voters for whom race was unknown). That’s still the highest percentage in any swing state by far.
Not only that, but the Black portion of the electorate is growing in Georgia as their percentage of the population has risen. State records show that Black adults made up 23% of voters in the 2000 election – which indicates a 6-point increase in the Black portion of the presidential electorate (whose race was known) from 2000 to 2020. There was an uptick of 1 point nationally over the same time span.
To put into perspective how important this shift has been to Democratic fortunes, consider this math of the 2020 election results. Black voters in Georgia favored Biden by 77 points, according to the exit polls. Non-Black voters as a group (led by White voters) backed then-President Donald Trump by about 30 points. If Black voters had made up the same 23% of presidential election voters they did in 2000, Trump would have won the state by 6 points.
Instead, Biden won Georgia by less than a point and became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1992.
(Keep in mind, other datasets suggest that Biden won Georgia’s Black voters by an even larger margin, so this math may, in fact, underestimate how important Black voters were to Biden’s win.)
There are other factors as to why Biden won Georgia when Democrats before him had failed. The state’s Asian and Hispanic populations are also way up from where they were 20 years ago. At the same time, White voters with a college degree in Georgia have shifted well to the left, matching recent national trends.
All that said, Black voters are a huge reason why only a handful of states have swung more Democratic in presidential elections since 2004 than Georgia, which has moved 17 points more Democratic. None of the seven states with bigger Democratic swings had elections that were anywhere as close as Georgia’s was in 2020.
Of course, it’s not just in presidential elections where the voting power of Black Georgians is felt.
Both of Georgia’s US senators are Democrats, including the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church himself, Raphael Warnock. Without Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, Democrats would be in the Senate minority instead of holding 51 out of 100 seats.
Neither Warnock nor Ossoff would be in the Senate without Black voters. I’m not only talking about the fact that Black Georgians overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Ossoff and Warnock in twin Senate runoffs in 2021 or about the rise in the percentage of Black voters in the state since the beginning of the century.
I’m talking about factors unique to the 2021 runoffs. Historically, Black turnout had dropped in general election runoffs in Georgia. That was not the case in 2021, when both Ossoff and Warnock scored narrow wins.
Black voter turnout (relative to voters as a whole) was actually up in the 2021 runoffs compared with the November 2020 general election. Moreover, those who turned out were more Democratic-leaning than Black voters who had voted in the general election.
Many of these same Black voters backed Warnock in huge numbers again in his victorious bid for a full six-year term in December’s Senate runoff.
With the 2024 election around the corner, Georgia’s electoral fate depends on Black voter turnout and whether Democrats continue to win them in large numbers more than any other state. Expect Biden to be back in the Peach State rallying Black voters, if he runs for a second term.