Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE's narrowest victory last year was in Georgia; his closest loss was in North Carolina. Both states were considered competitive. The surprise: It wasn't North Carolina that went blue, but Georgia in the presidential contest and two months later in two U.S. Senate races.
Why is captured in an in-depth analysis by three Harvard scholars, on the political performance of the two states over a decade. While social and political activists in North Carolina, led by the Rev. William Barber, waged intense protests and sit-ins against the “immoral” policies of the right-wing Republican legislature, Stacey Abrams, in Georgia, waged an equally intense campaign to register voters linked to her Democratic party.
It turns out the most effective vehicle for social change, the three Harvard scholars report, is the political arena.
These two Southern states are similar in population and demographics; Georgia has a higher percentage of Blacks, and North Carolina probably has slightly more Democratic-leaning well-educated whites.
In recent elections cycles, including 2020, national Democrats were more focused on North Carolina, which had voted for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE in 2008 and had two Democratic governors since then. Republicans were more dominant in Georgia.
The most vocal anti-Republican voice in the Tar Heel state was the Rev. Barber, starting from his perch as head of the state's NAACP, and his campaign for social justice and racial equity. This was elevated after Republicans captured the state house in 2010. The charismatic Barber assailed their policies and also criticized progressives for “fawning over politicians” who then betray them.
The Harvard study recounts how Forward Together attracted national attention, considerable media coverage, with its protests, thousands descending on Raleigh. There were the “Moral Monday” demonstrations and sit-ins at the state Capitol; more than a thousand supporters were arrested.
A right-wing organization examined the background of those arrested. They were predominately white, female, older, ministers, retired public sector workers and professors and overwhelmingly registered Democrats. They weren't new converts to the cause. There were minimal links to electoral politics. Despite the emphasis on the poor, the Harvard scholars found the movement “actually boosted progressive metropolitan liberalism and reinforced the Democrats reliance on college educated voters.”
In Georgia, with less national attention, Stacey Abrams, a young black woman who had become Democratic leader in the State House, was taking a different tack, a thoroughly political one aimed at unregistered voters of color to help elect Democrats. Her New Georgia Project (NGP) reached out to prospective voters across the state, setting up non-profit voter registration projects and prospective voters across the state, as she vigorously campaigned around the state. In her first three years as minority leader, she had over 400 days of travel per diem expenses, crisscrossing Georgia with white and black legislators.
She linked voting to policies favored by Democrats. When the Republican Georgia legislature refused to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, she explained the only antidote was to register Democrats. At the same time, unlike Barber, she was shaking the money trees from left wing Democratic fat cats to fund these efforts.
While the North Carolina social justice initiative focused heavily on metropolitan areas, the NGP worked the small towns and rural areas of Georgia.
Almost half of Georgia's Blacks live outside the Atlanta metropolitan area, and over half of Blacks in North Carolina live outside the state's three major metropolitan areas.
The Abrams network organized funeral directors in parts of rural Georgia, always connecting the dots to voting for Democrats. Abrams said Democrats would reach “lonely” Democrats and people who don't know they're Democrats yet.
She also reached out to the growing — and often unregistered — population of Hispanics and Asian citizens.
It clicked in 2018, when Abrams ran for Governor, narrowly losing, barely missing a run-off. (Unless a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, Georgia requires a runoff.)
The payoff came last year when Biden carried Georgia by 11,000 votes, a state where Trump beat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE by more than 211,000 votes.
But the real bonanza was two months later when the Democrats won two special run-offs for U.S. Senate seats.
Typically in Georgia runoffs, the Black vote drops, one reason Republicans usually win. This past January, the GOP turnout was good, the Harvard researchers note, 89.2 percent of the November presidential vote. Remarkably, the Democrats — fueled by a surge with Black voters — was better: 92.5 percent.
There was an even higher performance in counties where NGP was active.
There always are unique issues. Last year, North Carolina did reelect a popular Democratic governor, and the party's losing Senate candidate was embroiled in a sex scandal.
Theda Skocpol, the Harvard political scientist and one of the authors of the study, notes the Harvard study is “a substantial report of an ongoing project” with more data forthcoming.
For Democrats, there is more momentum in Georgia — a lesson for liberals.
The Harvard analysis concludes: “Social Justice Campaigns can make more headway through grassroots organizing aligned with a political party than by mounting issue-focused protests and non-partisan moral appeals.”
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.