President Joe Biden will return to Georgia. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he was visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the civil rights pioneer preached. The trip was significant, not only as a tribute to King, but also because King helped lead the movement for equal voting rights for black Americans.
In many ways, the Peach State is where the political importance of black voters is most evident. They were one of the biggest reasons Georgia went from a red state to a purple state.
The current list of swing states in American politics is dominated by places where black voters don’t play a huge role — such as Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. Even in swing states where black voters make up at least 10 percent of the voting public, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, the 2020 general election has a comparable proportion of black voters to the nation (12 percent).
Georgia is a big exception. According to U.S. Census data, 33 percent of voters in the state’s 2020 presidential election were black. That ranks second in the nation, behind crimson Mississippi. Georgia’s own records show that 29% of voters of known race in 2020 were black (27% when we included voters of unknown race). That’s still by far the highest percentage of any swing state.
Not only that, but Georgia has also seen an increase in the percentage of black voters as their share of the population has risen. State records show that black adults made up 23 percent of the electorate in the 2000 election — suggesting a 6-point increase in the black segment of the presidential electorate (whose race is known) from 2000 to 2020. It rose 1 percent nationally over the same period.
To understand the importance of this shift for the fortunes of the Democratic Party, consider the math behind the 2020 election results. Black voters in Georgia back Biden by 77 points, according to exit polls. Non-black voters as a group (led by white voters) supported then-President Donald Trump by about 30 percentage points. If black voters made up the same 23 percent of the presidential electorate as they did in 2000, Trump would win the state by 6 percentage points.
Instead, Biden won Georgia by less than a point, becoming the first Democrat to win the state in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1992.
(Keep in mind that other data sets show Biden winning black voters in Georgia by a larger margin, so the math may actually be underestimating the importance of black voters to Biden’s victory.)
There are other factors that could explain why Biden won Georgia when the Democrats before him lost. The state’s Asian and Hispanic populations are also significantly larger than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, white voters with college degrees in Georgia have shifted to the left, matching recent national trends.
Taken together, black voters are a big reason why only a handful of states have leaned more Democratic in presidential elections since 2004 than Georgia, which has a 17-point lead over Democrats. Of the seven states with wide Democratic swings, none have had elections as close as Georgia’s in 2020.
Of course, it wasn’t just in the presidential election that the voting rights of black Georgians suffered.
Georgia’s two U.S. senators are both Democrats, including Raphael Warnock himself, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Without Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, Democrats would be a minority in the Senate instead of 51 of the 100 seats.
Neither Warnock nor Ossoff would have entered the Senate without black voters. I’m not just talking about the fact that black Georgians overwhelmingly voted for Ossoff and Warnock in the two Senate runoffs in 2021, or the rise in the percentage of black voters in the state since the turn of the century .
I’m talking about the unique elements of the 2021 runoff. Historically, black turnout has declined in Georgia’s general election runoffs. That wasn’t the case in 2021, when both Ossoff and Warnock narrowly won.
Black voter turnout (relative to the overall electorate) actually rose in the 2021 runoff compared to the November 2020 general election. Furthermore, those who did come out leaned more Democratic than black voters who voted in the general election.
Warnock won a full six-year term in December’s Senate runoff election, again heavily supported by many black voters.
As the 2024 election looms, Georgia’s electoral fate hinges on black voter turnout and whether Democrats continue to win more black voters than any other state. If Biden runs for a second term, he is expected to return to the peach blossom states to court black voters.