WASHINGTON, D.C. - Michelle Nunn and David Perdue seem as though they could be headed for a runoff in their contest to take Georgia's open Senate seat. The race definitely matters since Republicans are so close to taking control of the Senate away from Democrats.
But many of the political pros behind the scenes aren't nearly as interested in the outcome of this week or in January, in the event of a runoff. In 2016 and beyond, Georgia appears ready to shift from a Republican stronghold to a bona fide battleground state.
The main reason is demographics. To put it as simply as possible, Georgia is quickly becoming less white. And that has political experts buzzing about the Republican state that John McCain won over Barack Obama by only 5 points in 2008.
Mitt Romney did a bit better, at about 7 points over Obama in 2012. But over the horizon is a demographic shift that census watchers and political experts say could draw Democrats even in the near term and even give them an advantage in coming years.
On a recent trip to Georgia to cover the Perdue-Nunn race, I sat down with Emory University political science professor Alan Ambramowitz. He broke out some charts all with one bottom line: Georgia's white (and more conservative) population is getting old.
Pointing to U.S. Census data, Ambramowitz said that in 2010, 60 percent of Georgia's voting population was white. That's a pretty healthy number for Republicans since about two-thirds of Georgia's white population votes for the GOP. But future voters look much different: In 2010 only 47 percent of Georgia's under-18 population was white.
The reverse trend is at work in Georgia's already sizable African-American population. African-Americans made up 29 percent of voting-age Georgians in 2010, but 34 percent of under-18's in the same year.
Latinos, meanwhile jump from 8 percent of the voting population in 2010 to 13 percent of future voters.
"That's the thing about these demographic trends, there's a certain inevitability to them. We know that this generational turnover happens," Ambramowitz told me.
Demographers and political scientists worry about all kinds of subtrends like income, voting behavior, geographic movement and education to hone in on the kind of voter behavior information that campaigns crave. But the bottom line, Abramowitz said, is easy to understand.
"The oldest age groups are also the most white," he said.
The numbers present some real opportunities but also hard choices for Democrats right now, and you can see them at play in the Georgia Senate race. To begin with, a lot experts from both political parties were surprised that Nunn has managed to make Georgia so competitive in a midterm election where Obama is so disliked by voters. And David Perdue has been working hard to shackle Nunn to Obama's agenda.
Nunn is relying on high African-American turnout to boost her chances, but has stopped short of bringing Obama in to try and motivate that electorate. Instead, Nunn has relied on black civil rights groups and churches to try and get out the vote while orienting her campaign to grab as many moderate white voters as possible.
There's also been a lot of activity around voter suppression and alleged irregularities, all of which Democrats say is designed to blunt the impact of African-American votes.
Another factor is voter registration. There are an estimated half-million unregistered black, Latino and Asian voters in Georgia this year. Whether Michelle Nunn will wind up capitalizing on registration drives from Democrats remains to be seen.
Also, a lot of these trends only translate to an advantage for Democrats if party politics don't significantly shift. Right now African-Americans and Latinos vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and that voting behavior would have to stay roughly the same for the demographic to play for Democrats.
But Ambramowitz says there's no reason to believe it won't. White conservative voters are expected to demand that the GOP carry their values in elections. And that could spell trouble for a GOP increasingly caught between a conservative base and a growing minority population.
"It's a slow process, though," Ambramowitz says. "Every year this trend continues and in four years, eight years, 12 years, you begin to see some significant changes taking place."
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.
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