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Can Clinton turn Georgia from red to blue? It's a matter of black and white

Los Angeles Times

When Donald Trump first announced his run for president, Karl Booker was intrigued.

From where he stood, behind a barber's chair in a gentrifying neighborhood near downtown Atlanta, the thought of a political outsider shaking things up seemed promising. Perhaps, he thought, the Manhattan businessman could make government more responsive to people like his own mostly black clientele.

Then, Booker said, Trump "started pandering to the racist side of it" — disparaging Mexicans, insulting Latino Americans, portraying African American life as a hellish slough of crime, poverty and other grim pathologies.

Now, comb and scissors in hand, the 49-year-old Booker draws a red line through the bustling Off the Hook barbershop, with its Barack Obama posters, sports memorabilia and pennants celebrating Georgia's historic black colleges.

"We in here are going to do everything we can to stop Donald Trump," Booker declared in a hard, gravelly voice that brooked no doubt.

Until this summer, a black voter in Atlanta didn't matter much in the race for president. Georgia was as Republican red as its famous clay soil, having backed the GOP nominee in seven of the last eight presidential contests, including the last five in a row.

But as the presidential race reaches the Labor Day weekend — once the beginning of the general election campaign but now the beginning of the end — Democrats are considering a serious run at Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.

That’s a measure of Trump’s weakness and of long-term shifts in the politics of states along the southeastern coast from Virginia to Florida that have grown more hospitable to Democrats.

For Hillary Clinton’s campaign, an effort here carries little risk and long-term benefits that could be substantial.

Polls show the former secretary of State now holding a steady lead in enough states to easily capture the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, and then some.

Trump, who started out trailing in the Electoral College thanks to a Democratic edge in several big states, once vowed to overtake Clinton in the Democratic-leaning states of the industrial Midwest. He boasted of putting blue bastions like California, New York, New Jersey and Oregon into play.

So far he has fallen short on both counts.

That could change in the nine weeks remaining until election day. For now, though, Clinton is operating from such a strong position that the debate among Democrats is whether she should focus solely on where she needs to win Nov. 8 or broaden her efforts to target Republican-leaning states, including Arizona as well as Georgia, in hopes of burying Trump in a landslide and potentially redrawing the presidential map for years to come.

Over the last few elections, several states that once favored Republicans — Nevada and Colorado in the West and Virginia and North Carolina in the Southeast — have moved Democrats' way, owing in large part to the rising influence of nonwhite voters.

Georgia has been expected to follow that pattern within the next decade or so as the political clout of the state's growing black, Latino and Asian populations increases. But many, Democrat and Republican alike, believe Trump could hasten that timetable.

"He's the best turnout operation we've got," said Keith Mason, a longtime Democratic strategist in Georgia.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has spent decades surveying Southern voters and worked for Trump’s primary rival Marco Rubio, agreed. Particularly worrisome, he said, is Trump's lagging support among college-educated white voters — especially women — who abound in the sprawling suburbs ringing Atlanta.

"A normal Republican nominee," Ayres said, "would be comfortably ahead in Georgia."

The Clinton campaign and allied political action committees are still weighing an all-out effort. In the meantime, the campaign has dispatched a handful of staffers to the state, opened an office in Atlanta and cut a check to bolster Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. (Apart from the presidential race, there is also a U.S. Senate seat at stake in November.)

Obama lost here by 5 percentage points in 2008, a surprisingly close finish since he essentially ceded the state after Labor Day. In 2012, the president didn't even bother competing — his campaign had two staffers, one steering volunteers to North Carolina and the other to Florida — and lost by 7 points.

Still, the changing demographics and the vulnerabilities of Trump make it a tempting target; one of the strongest advocates for a hard run at Georgia is former President Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to carry the state — by a whisker — back in 1992.

Even the most optimistic Hillary Clinton supporter acknowledges that winning in November would likely require a perfect convergence of events: a huge black turnout, a significant drop in Trump's white support and a decent enough showing by Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, to allow Clinton to win the state with less than 50% support. (Green Party candidate Jill Stein is not on the ballot.)

"I'm not going to say it's likely," said James Carter, a Democratic operative in Atlanta and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. "Still, it's definitely realistically possible."

In political terms, the calculus is simple as black and white: The higher the African American turnout and the degree of black support, the fewer white votes Clinton needs to win.

Blacks comprise about 30% of the electorate here, and Clinton can probably count on 90% or more support from them; Obama won 98% of the African American vote in 2008 and upwards of 95% in 2012.

If Clinton could match Obama's 2012 performance, and black turnout were high enough, she could eke out a victory by winning as few as 1 in 4 whites votes. (Though even that may be a reach; in 2008 Obama received only 23%.)

A key question is whether African Americans will turn out in huge numbers without the history-making Obama on the ballot. The answer could determine the outcome not just in Georgia but in the battlegrounds of Nevada, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, where black voters are a crucial part of the Democratic base.

Younger blacks, in particular, may see little reason to vote, lacking the long history and affinity many older African Americans have with Clinton and her husband. Many younger blacks backed the more liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nominating fight this spring.

"They may hate [Trump].  But they don't necessarily like or really trust" Hillary Clinton, said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who specializes in surveying African American voters. "This idea that just because he's racist means they're going to vote for her and embrace her — it's not that simple."

That's been Mary-Pat Hector's experience, to her great frustration.

A student organizer at Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta, the 18-year-old Hector said her peers "know the things Donald Trump says are sexist. They know the things he's said are racist."

But rather than vote for Clinton, they tell her they'll stay home in November, having little affection for a candidate they associate with the mass imprisonment of young black men under policies her husband pursued as president.

(Clinton has distanced herself from those anti-drug policies and experts question how much President Clinton’s policies actually contributed to the increase in incarcerations, which began long before his presidency. She has also apologized for once using the racially freighted word "super-predator" to describe young criminals, a remark that still rankles many African Americans.)

Far more than Trump, the Democrat's greatest challenge rallying black support may be overcoming indifference and a sense that who wins in November doesn't really matter.

Back at Off the Hook, working just a few barber chairs down from Booker, Devery Monagan talked about what's changed and what hasn't. Presidents come, he said, and presidents go. Racism persists, and so does inequality.

"When has a presidential campaign made a difference?" Monagan asked, as news of Trump's day trip to Mexico blared on a big-screen TV overhead. "We've been dealing with the same troubles; we’ve been dealing with the same issues. It's always been the same."

He has little use for the New York real estate mogul and not much more for Clinton. Asked whether he'll vote in November, Monagan, 44, said that was "still up in the air."

It probably won't make much difference anyway, he said.

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