Results could dictate Democratic and Republican strategy nationwide.

Jon Ossoff speaks to voters during a campaign stop in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

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All eyes are on Georgia this week with Tuesday’s runoff election set to decide control of the U.S. Senate. The results could also play a role in dictating political strategy for both Democrats and Republicans in the future and across the country. Activists in Georgia are trying to build a case that the work they’re doing here will translate nationwide. “I just want to show that November wasn’t a fluke,” said the New Georgia Project’s Nse Ufot. “I want people to know that these changing demographics and long-term sustained year-round organizing works and that there’s nothing magical about it, and if it worked in Georgia, it can work again in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.”

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Cleve Wootson, a reporter at the Washington Post. Like Ufot, he’s been traversing the state of Georgia for the past two months. He’s not getting people registered, though. He’s trying to figure out how well the efforts of people like Ufot are working. You’ll find a transcription of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.

Mary Harris: You’ve covered a lot of elections, but this one is more intense than most, right? You said you can see it whenever you flip on the TV. 

Cleve Wootson: I was watching the UNC–Georgia Tech game, and obviously there is going to be a lot of people from Georgia watching that game, so all of the commercials would be from political candidates bashing each other, and then back to the game. And it’s not just the ads on TV. It’s billboards. When I listen to radio on these long, winding trips through Georgia, almost all the ads are about Warnock and Loeffler and Perdue and Ossoff, just ad nauseum.

It’s funny the way you phrase that: You’re talking about Perdue and Loeffler and Warnock and Ossoff. These candidates have kind of merged to become just the Democrats versus the Republicans. Have you seen that before?

You’ve seen this in very, very limited ways in the past where they’ll fly in and make it seem like all the candidates are best friends. But this is the first time that I’ve seen not just two candidates but four candidates all teaming up and saying, Look, we’re going to essentially run a nationalized race with nationalized stakes and nationalized money. The first event that I went to was a joint Warnock-Ossoff rally. I’ve never seen it so intensively where you can’t really say Warnock without saying Ossoff, you really can’t say Loeffler without Perdue.

Monday, President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump will both be in Georgia, rallying to get voters to the polls, even though nearly 3 million people have already cast their ballots early. For comparison, a Senate runoff back in 2008 brought out 2 million voters totalA lot of these early voters have come from more Democratic areas of the state. Should the GOP be worried?

The pandemic has presented these unprecedented challenges to voting, where people are just voting in in different ways. And Republicans vote a little differently. I’ve talked to many Republican operatives who say a lot of our Republicans in the state want to traditionally cast that ballot in person on Election Day.

So they’re holding their fire.

That means for anybody that wants to know what’s going on, you have to take a large grain of salt, maybe even a shaker of salt, to any of those early numbers. Also, there may be half a billion dollars invested in this runoff race. Runoff races are usually low turnout, low energy, low money. But in this case, the entire nation’s invested. We’re seeing all those ads on the basketball game, right? So it’s difficult, maybe even impossible, to draw a historical comparison that says 3 million people voting means X or Y. You just sort of have to bite your fingernails and wait for Tuesday.

A lot of people I’ve talked to about this election have basically said, It’s not about issues. It’s just about how many people you can physically get to a polling location to fill out their ballot. But I do wonder if you’re seeing any impact of what’s happening in Washington when you speak to voters?

“With the margins so thin, every effort pushes you over the side.”

— Cleve Wootson

One of the questions that each voter is asking him or herself is who can fix this and which is the best way to fix it. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and you’ve always believed in Republican values, if you believe that the state of Georgia should be open, for example, and that the economy matters very much, it’s hard to see those folks switching sides. I think that for the extreme voters, they know how they’re going to vote. They know how they’re going to feel. The question is: those folks in the middle, the quiet people who aren’t going to go to a Trump or Biden rally, they’re not going to put a Loeffler or Warnock sign in their yard. Are they going to be swayed one way or the other?

There are also people who, because of the competing crises that we’re having with job loss, with the pandemic, with deaths, with the economy tanking, are just checked out of it entirely. They are just not listening or are cynical about what they’re hearing.

So even with all the ads and all the text messages going to people, you think there are still people who are just on the fence or sitting this one out?

I went to rural Georgia, to Montezuma, which is maybe an hour and a half from Atlanta, where they were trying to canvass low propensity, low turnout voters. And they’re still finding people, thousands of people, who are checked out, who maybe see the ads on the TV because you can’t miss them, but they don’t see a connection between those people in those ads and an improvement on their lives. There’s a certain coronavirus fatigue and coronavirus cynicism. It’s not about whether people are seeing the message. It’s about whether the message is being internalized and it’s motivating them to end up voting. A lot of times, we go to the campaign rally, we see the most energized, active people, when in reality there are hundreds of thousands of people in the middle who are just trying to survive and go to work.

What does convincing those people look like?

The people that I was observing canvassing do a couple of things: One, they go after these people several times. I talked to one person who’s like, I’ve been to this neighborhood five or six times since the general. So it’s a repeated contact with people. It’s also hyperlocal in that having a canvasser that comes down from North Carolina or New York or California or from anywhere else is a lot harder. It’s a lot harder for that person to make a pitch to a person than it is somebody that’s local, that says, Hey, if you vote this way, these dirt roads that we’ve been having trouble with might be paved like the ones in Atlanta. Or These people care more about federal housing assistance and food stamps and Pell grants, for example, than these people. And it’s making that pitch over and over and over again. That takes a lot of time. That takes a lot of energy. That takes a lot of investment. And that’s why a lot of those folks, particularly in rural areas, have been overlooked for so long. But now, with the stakes of this race, you have Democrats, Republicans, independent groups—I even met some folks that just meet over coffee that decided that they were just going to go out and canvass some neighborhoods because of the high stakes.

Again, with the margins so thin, it really makes the point that every one of these votes could be crucial.

And every demographic: Black voters, moderate voters, Asian Pacific Islander voters, rural voters. With the margins so thin, every effort pushes you over the side. And more so than that, for Democrats in particular, if there is an opportunity for Democrats to seize control of the federal government and they don’t exert every last effort, they would just be disappointed that they’d missed an opportunity. That exists on the Republican side as well, but Republicans have typically been favored in the runoff. I think Democrats say this is our chance and we have to do everything, which is why you’re seeing so much energy.

You mentioned the quiet people who aren’t at rallies right now but are just quietly considering their options at home. Last month, I talked to a Republican operative in Georgia and he was really focused on the people who didn’t vote for Trump but voted for David Perdue in November. And he talked about how he thought these voters were going to “come home” to the Republican Party come January. I wonder if you’ve been talking to voters who are in that position and what you’re hearing?

Trump is no longer on the ballot, but Trumpism is. So one of the things that these voters are looking at is whether or not they’re going to see the continuation of Trumpism—the chaos, the roller coaster, the negative things. I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who both want to see a return to a moderate, less extreme Republican conservatism, but who also don’t want their names used or don’t want folks to blast them on Facebook because they’re not saying Trump, Trump, Trump is wonderful.

One of the open questions is what happens with these people, because it’s not just a question for Georgia. It’s also a question for the Republican Party after Trump. Who do they elect next? Who is the next person? Does Trump continue to have influence? Do voters want Trump to continue to have influence? And so a lot of us are watching these people closely because they may be the canary in the coal mine that says which way the Republican Party goes in Georgia, maybe in the nation.

You talked to this mom, Shauna Mosher, and you mentioned that she didn’t vote for Trump, but you didn’t talk about who she voted for for Senate. She was faced with this choice now of what to do with this doover. How is she thinking about that decision, because she said to you, anyone who associates himself with Trump is poison to me?

She did tell me she voted for Warnock and Ossoff. In fact, she really helped crystallize my thinking on this. She voted against Trump. In her mind, it’s not enough to just get rid of Trump. She wants everybody that’s allied themselves with Trump, with Trump’s way of thinking, with Trumpism, with the chaos that she sees affecting her children’s lives and her family’s investments and all of that stuff—she wants those folks out of there. And the big open question that will really only be answered on Tuesday is: How many Shauna Moshers are out there? And is that enough to tilt the election one way or another?

You mentioned how so many people are going to be looking to whatever happens in this election as a sign of where their political party should go from here. I wonder if you think the lessons of Georgia can be globalized in that way?

I think that Democrats in particular are going to look at the gains they’ve made in Georgia, a state with a high number of African American voters who lean Democrat, a state in which a lot of those voters were activated in the last couple of years thanks to Stacey Abrams, and say: Can that be replicated? Mike Espy, who ran for Senate in Mississippi, talked about sitting down with Stacey Abrams even before this election and saying, How can I do in Mississippi, which has a larger African American percentage of the population, what you’ve done in Georgia? Now it has to be tweaked and tinkered with. And it’s going to be difficult to see the amount of investment that’s flowing into Georgia in the past two months fall into every single race. Can you do that without half a billion dollars in spending in a race? I don’t know. But that is the open question on the Democratic side.

And on the Republican side, the big question is what comes next? Who is our champion? What is the ideal Republican that appeals not just to the people on the extremes who are going to vote for Republicans all the time? Should we begin to look outside of the typical white male, homogeneous voting bloc that has made up the large chunk of Republicans? Is there a message that stays true to their values but that also expands their tent?

Back in November, it took us a while to know what happened in Georgia. When do you think we’re going to know the results this time around?

I know that I will not be sleeping until it happens. But I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. I’m hunkered down for the long haul.

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