Can Stacey Abrams Defy the Polls, History and Gender Politics to Win This Time?

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 ATHENS, Ga. — The advance team of the Stacey Abrams campaign knows how to whip up a crowd. Doling out “Students for Stacey” signs to a diverse group of University of Georgia students and onlookers assembling in downtown Athens, her purple-clad staff ushered them to gather around a blocked-off spot in the middle of the street, to await the arrival of Abrams on her tour bus. 

Abrams press secretary Jaylen Black, a proud University of Georgia (UGA) grad, led the crowd in a rousing series of chants, ending with a refrain of “Let’s get it done!” and invited a few students to grab the mic. 

Watching from the sidewalk was Tamaine Jordan, a 43-year-old  lifelong Athens resident who works in community outreach for Clarke County Public Schools. Describing himself as politically independent — though Republican-leaning of late, he said he was undecided about his vote for governor and had come to the rally because he wanted to hear what Abrams had to say face to face and not on TV, especially on the issues of homelessness and improving wages for people in Georgia. 

Athens resident Tamaine Jordan says he was inspired to change from undecided voter to  Abrams supporter during her mid-October campaign rally in Athens.(Credit Jill Jordan Sieder for State Affairs)

Jordan, who is Black, said he’s been “a constituent” of Gov. Brian Kemp, a fellow Athens native, for years.  He said he got to know Kemp casually while serving him as a waiter and bartender at the 76-year-old, members-only Athens Country Club. Jordan said he appreciates Kemp’s moves to “put us back to work right after COVID, which really helped to sustain the Georgia economy.”

The purple-wrapped bus (Abrams’ signature color) arrived and Abrams stepped off, joining an entourage that included Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz.  

Secretary of State candidate Bee Nguyen spoke ominously about voter suppression in Georgia, pointing to  SB 202, also known as the Election Integrity Act of 2021. “They do not want us to vote!” she warned.

After hearing from other female candidates on the ballot next week, Abrams took the mic. She spoke with fiery passion about her agenda as the next governor of Georgia, including plans to divvy up the $6.6 billion fiscal year 2022 surplus to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional half million Georgians, which she said would also create 64,000 new jobs in the state. She promised to spend more on housing and public education.  And she criticized Kemp’s support of the concealed carry gun law he signed this year.  

“What if we didn’t have to be worried about gun violence taking our families and ruining our communities? What if we had the right to control our bodies as women?” she asked.  “We deserve a governor who sees us, who serves us, who will help us to be our best selves!” 

A week later, Jordan said he was impressed by what he saw and heard at the Athens rally.

“It was electrifying,” he said. Those women came with excitement. When they got off the bus and waved their hands, it was like, ‘Wow!’ And then they grabbed the mic and spoke with power. It really did it for me. Being an African-American male raised by an African-American woman, I see the power in the minority — and with all of them working together, I think they could change the perspective of Georgia and America, and really make a difference.” 

Jordan said he liked the solutions offered by Abrams on health care and affordable housing. “And she reminded me it was Kemp who reduced the regulations on gun licensing and purchasing. That doesn’t sit well with me. We have so much crime here. Just this weekend three young men under 20-years-old were shot here in Athens. I’d like to see some new leadership with a different perspective come in and shake things up.” 

Asked about his current choice for governor, he replied, “Well, let’s just say I’m a strong, strong, strong Stacey Abrams supporter now.” 

Stacey and the Fellas and the Gender Gap 

That undecided voter conversion outcome might just be the dream scenario for the Abrams campaign, which is working hard to connect with Black voters, particularly Black men.

Abrams has made a point of declaring that she can’t win without the Black male vote.  

“If Black men vote for me, I will win Georgia,” she said during an event at a restaurant in Kennesaw this past August. The gathering, hosted by popular radio DJ Frank Ski, was one of her “Stacey and the Fellas” campaign events held this year, aimed at helping her connect with Black men.

But current polling numbers paint a bleak picture for her ambitions. Abrams has lost traction in the polls since August, when she was trailing Kemp by 3.5 points. Now she’s behind Kemp by 7 points (51% to 44%) in the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC)/UGA poll released this week, and losing by almost 8 points in recent two-week polling averages tracked by Real Clear Politics.

The Black male voters she’s pursuing traditionally represent the second largest and most faithful voter block, behind Black women, for Democratic candidates in Georgia. In voter surveys and exit polls, Abrams consistently places lower with Black men than with Black women.  

Bloomberg noted that when Abrams lost to Kemp in 2018 by 55,000 votes, “exit polls found that 97% of Black women had voted for Abrams, compared with 88% of Black men. That nine-point gender gap represented 120,000 votes.”  

More recently, in a September 2022 AJC/UGA poll, 79% of Black respondents said they planned to vote for Abrams, including 82% of Black women and 74% of Black men, prompting concern that she was losing support from Black men. 

Her campaign staff argued at the time that the AJC poll skews Republican.. In the latest October AJC/UGA poll, where Kemp won 51% of all likely voters, 50 percent of respondents in the poll identified as GOP voters, 41 percent as Democrats, and 9 percent as Independents. 

Overall, 87% of Black voters supported Abrams in the October poll, an 8 percent increase since September. 

“The Black vote is going to continue coalescing around Abrams, including Black men,” says Trey Hood, a professor of political science at UGA who conducts the AJC poll. “Black support for Democratic candidates will be 90 to 95 percent, as it has been for the last several decades. It will be big news if there’s a divergence from that pattern.”

His UGA colleague Charles Bullock, a professor of political science, notes that closing the gender gap is a challenge for any female candidate.

“It’s a gap that you find between men and women voters within all ethnic groups. Women are more likely to be Democratic than men; that’s part of it. The other part in the governor’s race is that some Black men are pleased with what Kemp has been able to do with the economy. Our unemployment — currently less than 3 percent — that probably translates into better pay. “ 

But Abrams’ biggest challenge is that she’s running against an incumbent, says Bullock. “Four years ago it was an open seat. And now Kemp’s got a record and there are elements of his record that are broadly popular.” 

Bullock notes that Republicans and many business owners “are glad that Kemp opened up the state very quickly after COVID closed things down. Lots of people are very happy to get those [tax] refund checks. He has bragging rights on the Hyundai and Rivian [automotive] plants that have come to Georgia, bringing new jobs. And he connects the dots and says, ‘It’s because I’ve created such a positive environment for business.’ A lot of things that have happened on his watch that he takes credit for have won him some independent voters, and he’s even picking up some Democratic voters.”

Count Sultan Karim among them. 

The 48-year-old barber says his shop in East Lake would have likely gone under if not for Kemp’s decision to reopen the state for business early on in the pandemic.  

East Lake barber Sultan Karim says Gov. Kemp’s moves to open up Georgia for business during the pandemic have earned his vote for governor in the mid-term election. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

While he voted for Abrams in 2018, he says Kemp “has done a good job with the economy. 

“And he ain’t scared to get out of the car with Trump, with that voter fraud fiasco. He’s showing me that he’s a shrewd politician. Why would I vote for Stacey — just because she looks like me? If she walked in right now, I’d kiss her on the face  — but Kemp has shown me he’s a good governor.”

Karim added, “I see voting as a quid pro quo.  If I vote, I should get something. Kemp did me a solid two years ago. So he’s already paid. If and when I vote, I’ll return the favor.”  


Pursuing New and Unlikely Voters 

Abrams campaign staff says its strategy has been to expand the electorate overall, in part by pursuing younger voters and people of color and reengaging inactive voters. That includes taking aim at the 400,000 of the state’s 1.2 million registered Black male voters who have  opted out of voting in the past five election cycles.  

 Mark Lee, center, is a 3rd-year law student at UGA, who works in the public defender’s office in Athens.  “I don’t think it’s a man’s place to tell a woman what she should do with her body,” he says. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

The Georgia electorate is certainly bigger and more diverse since Abrams ran four years ago.  Since 2018, 1.6 million new voters have registered to vote in Georgia, and they now represent 20 percent of the total 7.7 million registered voters in the state, according to data from  the AJC.  People of color, voters under the age of 35 and urban voters number among the demographic groups that have shown the largest increases. Those voter groups tend to favor Democrats.

Not surprisingly, Abrams scoffs at the polls showing her losing to Kemp by a seemingly insurmountable margin, calling them a “snapshot” of voters that doesn’t capture the changes in the electorate.

Bullock says Abrams “can take some solace when looking at the polling, which shows her down 6, 8, 10 points and saying, ‘Well, what they’re doing is polling likely voters, and what I’m trying to do is to get unlikely voters to the polls, and they’re not being tapped.’ And it’s true,” Bullock said. “Who they’re polling now are individuals who voted in the primary or in the last election cycle. So if she’s succeeding at getting some of these new voters in Georgia, these 1 million-plus folks who have signed up to vote since 2020, maybe she can overcome the gap that we see.”

On the Road Again

In the closing weeks of her campaign, Abrams has embarked on a bus tour all over Georgia, holding rallies in  urban and rural areas. Besides the slate of women Democrats who often flank her at these events, which also includes attorney general candidate Jen Jordan, she’s enlisted the support of some high-wattage stars.  

Actors Kerry Washington and Lin Manuel-Miranda appeared with her and revved up supporters to vote early at events in Stone Mountain and Atlanta, where rapper and actor Common joined Democratic canvassers to knock on doors. Abrams popped on stage briefly with hip hop stars Lizzo and Latto to say, “I’m not gonna interrupt your fun. I just want to remind you that if you believe in my body, my choice, I need your vote, I need your big energy.”  

Abrams did a short rap during a live taping of the “Questlove Supreme” podcast in Atlanta, followed by a serious discussion with musician Questlove about police misconduct, generational poverty and Kemp’s role in disenfranchising Black voters. Questlove called Abrams “the human being I credit for holding our democracy in place.”

Abrams also had a cozy virtual confab with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who oozed support of her candidacy during their split-screen conversation.

Abrams said, if she is not elected, “Our children will continue to go to underfunded schools where transgender children have been banned from playing with their friends. We will have divisive laws that say that you have to lie to your children about their history. The members of the LGBTQ community will not have protection.” She told Oprah that  Kemp “has proven he doesn’t care, and he won’t help,” and if elected “will attack our freedoms, especially if you’re a woman.” 

Winfrey asked rhetorically, “What can we do to help? And the biggest answer is, you vote, because too much is at stake not to.” 

Stacey Abrams told supporters at a rally in College Park that she’ll be “the Maynard Jackson of Georgia,” awarding state contracts to small businesses and people of color. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Earlier that day, Abrams spoke to a group of mostly Black supporters at a barbecue joint in a working class neighborhood of College Park. In addition to laying out her sweeping platform of Medicaid expansion, subsidizing affordable housing, repealing the six-week abortion ban, and investing in public schools, she vowed to be “the Maynard Jackson of Georgia,” doling out pieces of state contracts to small business owners and people of color, whom she said currently get only 1.5 percent of such contracts. She also pledged to make technical college tuition free, to provide paid apprenticeship opportunities for college students, and to create a $10 million small business investment fund. Many heads nodded in approval, and joined Abrams in her closing call-and-response routine: “More Money! More Opportunity!  More Freedom!”

Her messaging lands well at her rallies, but Abrams is encountering some interference from both expected and unlikely sources.  

Kemp and his supporters routinely call her “Celebrity Stacey” and try to link her to currently unpopular President Joe Biden (who has a 37% approval rating in conservative-leaning Georgia), high inflation rates, and “liberal Hollywood elites,” as with this campaign ad featuring the image of Abrams as President of Earth from her cameo in a recent “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

After her appearance with Winfrey, Kemp spokesperson Tate Mitchell said, “While Stacey Abrams continues to solicit the help of out-of-state billionaires, Gov. Kemp will continue to talk to hardworking Georgians about his record of economic success and plan to build a safer, stronger Georgia.” 

Atlanta’s conservative Black radio host Shelley Wynter regularly retweets Kemp’s messages and digs at Abrams. Recently he has faulted Abrams for telling CNN she would not defund the police, but “reallocate resources from the police departments into community resources,” which he says “is the same thing.” Meanwhile, Abrams has also said she would raise the salaries of some law enforcement officers and expand mental health training for officers if elected.

And then there’s pop icon Killer Mike.  

The blunt-talking Atlanta rap star and activist was famously Democratic Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s go-to peace maker in 2020, the day after George Floyd’s murder at the knee of Minneapolis police set off angry protests, looting and destruction in Atlanta and nationwide. On live TV, he urged people to go home and “plot, plan, strategize and mobilize” to “beat up the politicians you don’t like” in the next election. 

Some feel that Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, is now beating up on Abrams. Last month, he appeared on Comedy Central’s “Helluva Week with Charlemagne the God” show and praised Kemp for attending a gathering of conservative Black businessmen in Atlanta. His advice to Abrams: “Whatever white person you got running your Black outreach, fire them … You need to go everywhere Brian Kemp just went, because what Kemp just did was have an effective week with Black people.” 

While Killer Mike has since insisted on Twitter that he’s “making no public endorsements” and will keep his voting preferences private, his rhetoric of late has infuriated many Black people and progressive Democrats.  

That includes Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, whose Atlanta-based organization is working to engage and mobilize Black voters in Georgia and all over the South.  

“What Killer Mike has been saying is damaging and misleading,” says Brown.  “He framed in some way that Brian Kemp is stronger than Stacey Abrams on economic issues by connecting him with Black business. Well, where was Brian Kemp for the last four years when he could have gotten contracts for Black businesses? Although the state is 30 percent African-American, why is it that under his watch Black businesses only received one percent of state contracts?” Brown also observes that sexism is at play in Abrams’ failure to win over some Black male voters.

“Are there some Black men who may have issues with her because she’s a woman? Absolutely. Sexism is historically present in our community and even more so in the white community. We saw this with Hillary [Clinton]. I always say that racism is nonpartisan, and sexism is nonracist, so it’s across the board. And as a Black woman, Stacey has to navigate across racism and sexism.” 

Reading the Turnout Tea Leaves

Last summer, Kemp announced plans to return $2 billion of Georgia’s $6.6 billion fiscal year 2022 surplus in the form of tax rebates to Georgia residents and to help local governments reduce homeowners' property taxes. Abrams pledged to invest $1 billion in tax rebates and to invest the rest in infrastructure and an array of services. 

Abrams received high praise for her plans from perhaps the most popular Black man in America last Friday when former President Barack Obama appeared with Abrams, incumbent U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock and other top Democratic candidates before 7,000 excited Atlantans at a rally inside a College Park convention center. 

President Barack Obama urged Georgians to vote for Democratic candidates at a rally in College Park on Oct. 28. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

“What Stacey Abrams is obsessed with … is making sure every Georgian has an opportunity to get ahead,” said Obama. “She’s investing Georgia’s surplus in the fundamentals: Good schools, a higher standard of living, more affordable health care and housing. That’s her agenda.” 

Early voting numbers, by mail-in ballot and in-person voting, have continued to break records on an almost daily basis since voting started Oct. 14. As of Nov. 2, some 2.1 million people in Georgia had voted, a turnout 25% higher than at this time last year. Black voters currently represent 29.1% of votes cast, a percentage almost equal to their share of registered voters in the state.

Operatives of all political parties are picking apart the early voter data to predict success or failure for their candidates and opponents.

UGA’s pollster and political scientist Hood cautions against this, as “it’s not really reliable data to project from.

“We typically know that Democrats and African-Americans like to vote early and in person.  Republicans tend to vote more often on election day. So we won’t really know where things stand until election day,” said Hood, adding that a more reliable metric might be the 30/30 rule.“If overall turnout is 30 percent Black, and a Democrat can get 30 percent of the White vote, then a Democrat has a good chance of winning,” he says.

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Contact Jill Jordan Sieder at JILLJORDAN@STATEAFFAIRS.COM or on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL.

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