There is a growing debate within the Democratic Party about the kind of candidate who would be best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in 2020. Would it be one with a working-class message like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont? Or would it be a more establishment figure with a similar appeal like former Vice President Joe Biden? The victory of Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman, in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary on May 22 is a reminder that nothing matters unless you first win the nomination, and that Hillary Clinton’s strategy in the last election might be more effective in 2020.
I first wrote about the Georgia race almost a year ago because it showed the potential to be one of the marquee Democratic primaries in 2018, even if it wasn’t clear what the themes would be. Although race is always going to be a dominating factor in a Deep South election between a white and a black candidate, the sizable margin and geographic breadth of Abrams’ victory shows that other issues mattered, too. The two candidates for the nomination had similar positions on most issues, so the election became a referendum on what kind of voters Georgia Democrats should try to turn out.
Abrams’ pitch borrowed from the Clinton playbook: The focus needed to be on the base of the party — people of color and women, especially in metro Atlanta, and especially those who might not be registered to vote. Stacey Evans, Abrams’ opponent, argued that this strategy targeted a coalition that was too narrow and that some independent and rural white voters would be needed to win the general election in November.
Given these differing approaches, Abrams would have been expected to fare better in metro Atlanta while Evans would have the edge in rural Georgia. But Abrams dominated the state, winning almost everywhere except the northwest corner of Georgia where Evans grew up. Abrams carried all 14 congressional districts in Georgia, and even carried every precinct in Evans’ former suburban Atlanta state legislative district.
The takeaway is that a general election strategy doesn’t matter much unless the candidate wins the primary. And as I said in a column a year ago, a consistent pattern has dominated Democratic presidential primaries since 1992: Consolidate the black vote, put up big numbers in the Deep South, and use the Democrats’ practice of awarding delegates on a proportional basis to build up a delegate lead that becomes insurmountable. Every Democratic nominee since 1992 has carried Georgia. The weakest performance was John Kerry’s 47 percent in the 2004 primary. Barack Obama got 66 percent in the state’s 2008 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton got 71 percent in 2016. Abrams did even better in her primary, garnering 76 percent of the vote.
The two potential presidential candidates who appear to be best positioned to take advantage of this pattern are Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. They have been frequent visitors to Georgia, and both came to the state in 2017 in support of the mayoral candidacy of Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. They also turned up to support Abrams’ primary run, and they almost certainly will return this fall before the general election. Should Abrams become governor, it’s possible that Harris or Booker could get the endorsement of both the governor of Georgia and the mayor of Atlanta in a key primary state with a Democratic electorate that’s now more than 60 percent black.
Still, all is not lost for Sanders supporters and those who favor the 2016 presidential candidate’s electoral approach. While the socialist’s political movement may be struggling to produce elected officials, his economic ideas are rapidly becoming mainstream in the Democratic Party. Booker backs a trial of a Sanders-esque jobs guarantee program. And the party continues to move to the left on health care. There used to be a debate about whether the Democratic Party should focus on identity issues or economic issues. Increasingly, the answer appears to be both.
But in terms of who ends up the party’s presidential nominee, the Clinton strategy is winning. A candidate needs to win the nomination and to do that you need delegates. The most effective way for a Democrat to be the delegate front-runner is by being the consensus choice of black voters, particularly in the Deep South, and by building a coalition outward from there. Abrams showed how powerful that strategy can be when it’s well executed.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.