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A young child looks on from under a campagin sign as she watchs Democratic Senate candidates speak during a campaign rally in Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 2020. - US President-elect Joe Biden travelled to Georgia to campaign for Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Plachette Lewis moved to Atlanta in 1996 to attend Spelman College. Frequently the only Black student in many of her high-school classes back home in Rochester, N.Y., she was drawn by the chance to study at a historically African-American university.

After graduation, a combination of job opportunities and warm weather persuaded her to stay in Georgia. She settled in Conyers, an Atlanta suburb of brick bungalows and spacious front yards, where she teaches elementary school and raises her three children.

A Democratic supporter, the 42-year-old votes for every office she can – federal, state, local – and thinks of her grandparents when she does. They left Alabama for New York during the segregation era, part of the Great Migration of Black Americans who fled the South to escape racist laws and poor economic prospects. “I always tell my kids: ‘I vote because there are people who couldn’t,’ ” Ms. Lewis said. “I never miss an election.”

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She is part of a long-term trend in Georgia. In recent decades, the once overwhelmingly white and staunchly conservative state has become increasingly diverse as people from across the country and around the world pour into Atlanta and its suburbs.

Some of the newcomers are Black, returning from the U.S.’s North and West to a region their ancestors left during Jim Crow. Others are Hispanic, drawn from elsewhere in the U.S. or Latin America by work. Still others come from farther afield, particularly India and East Asia.

This steady demographic shift may have reached a tipping point last month. These new Georgians predominantly vote Democratic, and helped Joe Biden carry the state by a 12,000-vote margin. He is the first presidential candidate from his party to win here since the three-way race of 1992.

And now, Georgia could make or break Mr. Biden’s administration. The state’s two Senate seats are up for grabs in a Jan. 5 election. The Democrats must win both to take control of the upper chamber, allowing the new president to pass his most ambitious policy promises on healthcare, climate change and immigration.

But even as the Atlanta area has moved left amid its diversification, most of the rest of Georgia has gone even further right. President Donald Trump won more votes here in 2020 than he did in 2016, thanks to a surge of support in older, whiter, rural areas. And they are determined to ensure Mr. Biden’s victory was a one-off.

The high stakes in Georgia have hundreds of millions of political dollars flowing into the state. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have been here to campaign. The election is set to show whether the new South can triumph in Georgia – or if the Republicans can hold on to an erstwhile red bastion.


GEORGIA’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

GEORGIA 30 YEARS AGO AND

2020 ELECTION RESULTS

1990: Percentage who were white

20

30

50

70

90%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

2020 election results

Republicans

Democrats

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Some of the counties that went to Joe Biden were 70 to 90 per cent white in 1990

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

GEORGIA TODAY

Percentage who are Black

2019 estimates

20

30

40

50%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Percentage who are Hispanic

2019 estimates

10

20

30%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Percentage who are foreign-born

2019, 5-year estimates

5

10

15

20%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

murat yükselir / the globe and mail,

source: ap; u.s. census bureau

GEORGIA’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

GEORGIA 30 YEARS AGO AND 2020 ELECTION RESULTS

1990: Percentage who were white

20

30

50

70

90%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

2020 election results

Republicans

Democrats

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Some of the counties that went to Joe Biden were 70 to 90 per cent white in 1990

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

GEORGIA TODAY

Percentage who are Black

2019 estimates

20

30

40

50%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Percentage who are Hispanic

2019 estimates

10

20

30%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

Percentage who are foreign-born

2019, 5-year estimates

5

10

15

20%

Atlanta

Augusta

Columbus

Savannah

murat yükselir / the globe and mail,

source: ap; u.s. census bureau

GEORGIA’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

GEORGIA 30 YEARS AGO AND 2020 ELECTION RESULTS

1990: Percentage who were white

2020 election results

Republicans

Democrats

20

30

50

70

90%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Savannah

Savannah

Columbus

Columbus

Some of the counties that went to Joe Biden were 70 to 90 per cent white in 1990

Atlanta

Augusta

Savannah

Columbus

GEORGIA TODAY

Percentage who are Hispanic

2019 estimates

Percentage who are Black

2019 estimates

10

20

30%

20

30

40

50%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Savannah

Savannah

Columbus

Columbus

Percentage who are foreign-born

2019, 5-year estimates

5

10

15

20%

Atlanta

Augusta

Savannah

Columbus

murat yükselir / the globe and mail, source: ap; u.s. census bureau

GEORGIA’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

GEORGIA 30 YEARS AGO AND 2020 ELECTION RESULTS

1990: Percentage who were white

2020 election results

Some of the counties that went to Joe Biden were 70 to 90 per cent white in 1990

Republicans

Democrats

20

30

50

70

90%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Augusta

Savannah

Savannah

Savannah

Columbus

Columbus

Columbus

GEORGIA TODAY

Percentage who are Black

2019 estimates

Percentage who are Hispanic

2019 estimates

Percentage who are foreign-born

2019, 5-year estimates

20

30

40

50%

5

10

15

20%

10

20

30%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Augusta

Savannah

Savannah

Savannah

Columbus

Columbus

Columbus

murat yükselir / the globe and mail, source: ap; u.s. census bureau

GEORGIA’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

GEORGIA 30 YEARS AGO AND 2020 ELECTION RESULTS

Some of the counties that went to Joe Biden were 70 to 90 per cent white in 1990

1990: Percentage who were white

2020 election results

Republicans

Democrats

20

30

50

70

90%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Augusta

Columbus

Columbus

Columbus

Savannah

Savannah

Savannah

GEORGIA TODAY

Percentage who are Black

2019 estimates

Percentage who are foreign-born

2019, 5-year estimates

Percentage who are Hispanic

2019 estimates

20

30

40

50%

5

10

15

20%

10

20

30%

Atlanta

Atlanta

Atlanta

Augusta

Augusta

Augusta

Columbus

Columbus

Columbus

Savannah

Savannah

Savannah

murat yükselir / the globe and mail, source: ap; u.s. census bureau


Set amid rolling Appalachian foothills, Atlanta has long been an urbane mecca in one of the U.S.’s most conservative regions. In the 1960s, it was at the centre of the civil-rights movement. Since the 1970s, the city has been run by Black mayors who famously boosted minority-owned businesses by giving them the opportunity to compete for government contracts.

The city’s Black corporate sector, universities and cultural institutions – not least the vibrant hip-hop and R&B scenes – have made Atlanta a magnet for everyone from young professionals to entrepreneurs to creatives.

It has helped that the city historically had a lower cost of living than other major metros. Both state and local government, for their part, have offered tax incentives to lure film studios and technology companies.

Miguel Lloyd, a Virginia native who runs a marketing firm, came to Atlanta six years ago when his wife’s company gave her the option of transferring here or to Washington, D.C. The couple chose Atlanta for both its affordability and Black culture.

“It’s a nice cross-section of people here from different markets,” said Mr. Lloyd, 48, who also serves as a vice-president with Atlanta Black Chambers. “A lot of Black business people here hold purse strings, are in purchasing departments, so that gets you the opportunity to get into conversations with people who can help you and your business grow.”

Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Home Deport are headquartered here. The Walking Dead and many Marvel movies have some years helped push Georgia past California as the state with the most film and TV productions. Even during the pandemic, there’s a humming energy in Midtown, where trendy restaurants sit amid a forest of new condominium towers, and in Little Five Points, a Bohemian district of coffee shops and beer bars.

Georgia’s population has grown by nearly a third in the past 20 years to 10.6 million, making it the country’s eighth most populous state. The lion’s share of this growth has been concentrated in and around Atlanta, which now has more than six million inhabitants in its metropolitan area.

And it has led to increasing diversity. In 1970, at the end of the Great Migration, Georgia’s population was 73 per cent white and 26 per cent Black. Those numbers now are 52 per cent and 33 per cent. Since 1990, Hispanic people have increased their proportion of the population five-fold, and today account for nearly 10 per cent, while Asian-Americans have jumped from 1.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent.

This sea change has largely benefited the Democrats. Data from Associated Press’s VoteCast shows that Mr. Biden won 91 per cent of Black voters’ support, 63 per cent of Hispanics and 69 per cent of Asian-Americans.

Jorge Belo, a tall 31-year-old with a shock of curly black hair, illustrates that shift. Born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents, he moved to the Atlanta area with his family before the 1996 Olympics for his father’s job as an event planner. In suburban Cobb County, he faced state-sanctioned xenophobia. The local sheriff, Neil Warren, led a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and Mr. Belo said he was repeatedly pulled over while driving. Some of his friends and family without immigration papers were arrested and deported after routine traffic stops.

Mr. Belo voted for the first time in 2016, galvanized to cast a ballot against Mr. Trump by the candidate’s promise to take national the sorts of policies Mr. Warren had imposed locally. Ahead of the 2018 midterm congressional elections, Mr. Belo’s mother and sister, who had previously lived on green cards, got their citizenship so they could join him at the ballot box. In 2020, his father did the same. “With Trump’s rhetoric and the way he was criminalizing and attacking peoples’ ability to be citizens, they felt it was the right time to start that process and get it taken care of,” Mr. Belo said.

This year, Mr. Warren lost re-election, one of several Atlanta-area Republican officials swept away by a Democratic wave.

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A woman wears an 'I'm a Georgia voter' sticker on her mask on Nov. 3's election day.

Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press

Alicia Rodriguez, a 19-year-old university student, was drawn to the Democrats by Mr. Biden’s promise to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants such as her parents. The couple came to the U.S. from Mexico 21 years ago and pay taxes. Her father even owns his own construction company.

But that hasn’t helped them obtain legal status. Nor has it shielded them from racist abuse. In the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, where her family lives in a trailer, a neighbour called her mother “illegal” and told her “you shouldn’t be here, go back to your own country,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

She and Mr. Belo both attended a rally for Jon Ossoff, one of the Democratic Senate candidates, earlier this month in the suburb of Lilburn.

Contrary to Mr. Trump’s stereotyping of suburbia as a series of white enclaves, these sprawling subdivisions around Atlanta are cosmopolitan locales. Mr. Ossoff spoke in the parking lot of Plaza Las Americas, a Latin-American shopping centre built to look like a Mexican adobe village. Up the road is a large marble and sandstone Hindu temple. The next town over boasts a South Asian mall. This county, Gwinnett, was 90 per cent white in 1990. Now, it is 30 per cent Black, 22 per cent Hispanic and 13 per cent Asian.

The relics of white supremacy, however, still loom large nearby. The county next to Gwinnett contains a 23-metre-tall sculpture of Confederate leaders carved into the side of Stone Mountain.

Even the state’s electoral system is a holdover from the segregation era. Candidates must obtain 50 per cent of the vote to win, or face a runoff. This system was instituted by white legislators in the 1960s as a safeguard against Black candidates winning office with a plurality of the vote. A runoff, they reasoned, would force the white majority to rally behind a single candidate. Hence the January vote, as no candidate in either Senate race won an absolute majority in November.

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Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff speak at a Dec. 14 campaign event.

Megan Varner/Getty Images

In their campaigns, Democratic nominees Mr. Ossoff and Raphael Warnock present themselves as emblematic of the new South.

Mr. Warnock, 51, grew up in public housing in Savannah, Ga., and was the first person in his family to go to university. He is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit, and has used his platform to push for social reforms such as expanded access to health care.

Mr. Ossoff is a 33-year-old who produces international investigative documentaries. He plays the attack dog on the stump, assailing Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue as “the Bonnie and Clyde of political corruption” for dumping stocks early in the pandemic after receiving a private Senate briefing on the expected severity of COVID-19.

Ms. Loeffler, 50, a former financial services executive and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, is campaigning as one of the Senate’s most right-wing members. She has supported Mr. Trump’s position in every one of her Senate votes, championed crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and pushed legislation to ban transgender people from taking part in women’s and girls’ sports. Mr. Perdue, 71, sells himself on his corporate experience, having spent his career as an executive at Reebok and Dollar General.

Georgia senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images; John Bazemore/The Associated Press

Beyond demographic changes, the Democrats’ rise in Georgia has taken extensive groundwork. And no one has received more credit for this than Stacey Abrams. During her 2018 run for governor, she attacked state laws that make it harder to cast a ballot, particularly for Black, low-income and young voters likely to support the Democrats. Although Ms. Abrams narrowly lost, she performed better than any Georgia Democrat in 20 years. She subsequently founded Fair Fight Action, a group that has registered many new voters and battled voter-suppression laws.

Other progressive groups are trying to replicate this success. Asians For Ossoff and Warnock, for instance, has launched a multipronged effort to mobilize voters with door-to-door canvasses and social-media campaigns in several languages.

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Madison Potts, 21, president of the NAACP chapter at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, said there’s been a surge of political interest among her fellow students since Ms. Abrams’ run. Three years ago, it was hard to get people to register to vote. But now, when the group sets up tables on campus, students are eager to sign up. Awareness of voter suppression, as well as more discussion of student debt as a policy problem, have motivated the change.

“Young people recognize their power when they turn out,” she said. “We want to get out to the polls in record numbers, make sure we aren’t counted out. Everything has picked up traction in a way I wouldn’t have imagined.”


A voter fills out paperwork before casting a ballot on Dec. 14 at Atlanta's C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center. Early voting runs as late as Dec. 31 in some counties.

Ben Gray/The Associated Press


McCall Calhoun was a Democrat for most of his life. A 58-year-old lawyer in Americus, Ga., a town of 15,000 people a two-hour drive south of Atlanta, he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Mr. Calhoun soured on the party last year over its push for gun control in Virginia. The wave of protests against police brutality and racism this summer drove him further toward Mr. Trump.

Mr. Calhoun, who is white, owns 15 guns – including AR-15-style rifles – and a Confederate battle flag.

“Antifa and Black Lives Matter are violent, communistic organizations. If the police can’t stop them from rioting, we will,” said Mr. Calhoun, a bearded, bespectacled man, his long grey hair tied in a ponytail. “I get accused of being a racist because I stand up for the second amendment. The social-justice warriors on Facebook, they try to shut you up. By virtue of my skin colour, I’m not welcome in the Democratic Party.”

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Mr. Calhoun was one of the more than 11 million Americans who didn’t vote for Mr. Trump in 2016 but did this year. In Georgia alone, the President drew 372,750 more votes in his 2020 loss than he received in his 2016 victory.

This is the other demographic trend in U.S. politics, the counterweight to Georgia’s diversity-driven leftward move: People in small towns and rural areas, the vast majority of them white, becoming increasingly conservative.

It continues a long-term realignment in the South. The Democrats dominated the region until the 1960s, when the party passed civil-rights legislation and some white voters switched allegiance to the Republicans. Social issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage, further drove conservative southerners away from the Democrats. The culture wars have reached a new pitch under Mr. Trump, who portrays asylum seekers as dangerous criminals and derides racial-justice protesters as a “mob.”

President Donald Trump waves to supporters at Georgia's Valdosta Regional Airport on Dec. 5.

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

On an unseasonably warm December evening, Mr. Trump rallied for Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue at the airport in Valdosta, Ga. Hundreds of supporters who couldn’t get in gathered on a closed highway nearby to watch the President’s speech on a Jumbotron.

Among them was Roy Van Zant, a 74-year-old sign maker in a straw hat and jean jacket, who handed out stickers reading “Make America Great” and “Jesus.” His family had once been Democratic, he said but became solidly Republican over the years.

“All the stuff about abortion, homosexuality, getting rid of prayer in schools, taking away guns,” Mr. Van Zant explained. “Read the Bible. God says he made a man and he made a woman and there’s a reason he made them that way.”

The Republican Senate campaign has worked to play to these fears. Most of its attacks are directed at Mr. Warnock. One ad depicts a group of mostly white school children as a narrator intones: “This is America. But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate?” Then, it cuts to an image of Mr. Warnock, his face darkened, over footage of a riot and accusations that he is a Marxist fellow traveller.

Earlier this year, Ms. Loeffler also publicly assailed a plan by the WNBA to paint “Black Lives Matter” on its courts. In an open letter, she accused the movement of causing “violence and destruction across the country.” In protest, members of the Dream, a majority of whom are Black, wore “Vote Warnock” shirts to a game.

Which side benefits from such tactics could determine the outcome.

Ms. Loeffler, third from right, stands in line with her husband for early voting at Chastain Park Gymnasium in Atlanta.

Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Kamau Griffin, a lanky 45-year-old landscaper in the Atlanta suburbs, said he didn’t know much about Ms. Loeffler until the WNBA controversy erupted. The issue hit home directly for him. Mr. Griffin, who is Black, said a police officer once twisted his arm behind his back and threw him against his vehicle while he was filling up with gas in his own neighbourhood late at night. “I’m a voting citizen. I pay my taxes. I have a 20-month-old son and another one on the way,” he said.

The anti-racism protests that swept the U.S. earlier this year were particularly large in Georgia, fuelled by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, gunned down by a white vigilante and Atlanta police respectively.

Other wild cards in the Senate race include Mr. Trump’s attacks on his own party, and Mr. Warnock’s divorce. The President has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the vote in Georgia was rigged for Mr. Biden, possibly with the collusion of the state’s Republican leaders. And he delayed signing a pandemic relief bill into law over a dispute with his party’s congressional caucus over the size of stimulus cheques.

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Mr. Warnock’s ex-wife, meanwhile, has accused him of running over her foot with his car during a child-custody dispute. Mr. Warnock denied this, and police did not charge him after they were unable to find any signs of injury on his ex-wife’s foot.

Looming over the election is the shadow of the pandemic. Mr. Trump’s rally saw thousands of unmasked participants crowd onto the Valdosta tarmac. At Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff’s events, by contrast, supporters stand on pavement markings six feet apart and wear masks. But the Democrats have loosened one constraint. While they stopped most in-person campaigning during the presidential election, they have resumed door-knocking for the Senate race.

Perhaps the hardest factor to gauge is the effect of the small number of Republicans who defected to the Democrats in 2020. AP VoteCast found that Mr. Biden won 7 per cent of Republican voters, compared with 2 per cent of Democrats who went to Mr. Trump, giving Mr. Biden a slight edge in wooing people from the other party. If this really was the deciding factor, it could augur poorly for the Democratic Senate candidates because it would mean that, without Mr. Trump on the ballot, these Republican defectors are less likely to cross party lines. VoteCast also found that Mr. Biden won 59 per cent of people who didn’t vote in 2016. These irregular voters may be more difficult to motivate this time around.

Mr. Ossoff takes a photo with a supporter at a Dec. 5 rally in Conyers.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Back in Conyers, local Democrats still allowed themselves some optimism. Their town was proof, they said, that the state has passed a crucial threshold of diversity. As recently as 1990, 90 per cent of residents in the county that includes Conyers were white. Today, the Black proportion of the population has grown to 58 per cent. The county went for Mr. Biden by nearly 70 per cent of the vote.

When Charlotte Booker was growing up here in the 1960s and 1970s, she said, the town was racially divided.

“White people lived in one neighbourhood on one side of town, Black people lived on the other side,” said Ms. Booker, 55, a former leader of the state’s teachers’ union. “Now, we’re all living together. We have churches where we have people of all different races.”

On a chilly sunny afternoon one recent Saturday, Mr. Warnock stumped at a drive-in rally in front of a recreation centre here. The state’s changes were real, he vowed, and they would carry him to victory.

“There is a new Georgia rising,” he thundered amid a cacophony of car horns. “It is open, it is inclusive, it is ready for the future.”

Marley Robinson, 8, holds a sign at the Dec. 5 rally in Conyers.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images


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