It is election day in Georgia and the stakes are high.
Tonight, Georgia remains at the center of the American political universe. Why?
This is a huge victory for the Democrats, a state they’ve long eyed, like a 10-year-long project to flip this red state blue.
She released a playbook laying out the path to Democratic victory here and across the country.
Abrams says the keys are spending money, tens of millions, and convincing voters to show up.
Every time I see you, I feel like you are doing more and more things.
Well, they said you’d written a bunch of romance novels under a different name?
Yes, I’ve written a romance novel —
United Earth is ready right now to rejoin the Federation.
OK, Stacey Abrams is a clown.
Georgia was, for a very long time, not just a polarized state, but it was very black and white. There was very little intention in engaging Black voters beyond those who always showed up. There was very little attention other than presidential years and really talking to young people. There had been almost no investment in other communities of color.
And low propensity voters, voters who weren’t regular voters, were not included in outreach. We basically had persuasion voters, which were considered white swing voters, or you had turnout voters, which were Black people. What that means — and I know you understand this, Astead, but for your listeners, what that means is we don’t have to talk to you until the very last minute.
Persuasion target means you get information and attention throughout the entire campaign. And the reality is, Black voters need persuasion as well. We had an entire swath of Black voters who at first to be persuaded to register and then be persuaded that voting could change things.
We had to do the same with AAPI and Latino communities and Native American communities. And with young people, we had to connect the dots so they understood what was at stake and why their voices mattered. Those are all organizing responsibilities. And I think sometimes people hear organizing and it becomes a reductive idea. But it’s truly the fundamental work of democracy, getting people to believe in their political power by explaining how their power can translate into outcomes.
I totally agree about organizing being kind of seen reductively. I wanted to pull on that. How would you rank the organizing that you all did in lead up to 2020 against other factors that mattered in that year too — moderate voters who were turned off from Donald Trump, or Republicans who didn’t come out to the polls that November at all? How much did your work matter against those other factors in terms of ranking the order importance of what made Georgia flip?
It’s pulling at threads that unravel the entire tapestry if you think only one thread matters. You don’t have a 12,000 vote margin if Black and Brown people aren’t engaged. No matter how many voters who voted for Trump in ‘16 and voted for Biden in ‘20, no matter how many of those voters shift, if you don’t have the lift that comes from engaging low propensity voters, engaging voters who had never been considered part of the electorate, who had never gotten the resources necessary to be part of the electorate.
You’re trying to figure out who comprises that last 12,000? Well, my pushback is not that your question isn’t legitimate, but the question presumes that there was one final explosion of reality. Where, in truth, it was a confluence of different pieces, but the heft of which, the difference between a 2016 and a 2020 was the organizing of voters who had not been part of the narrative.
I guess I’m asking because for a lot of Democrats, Georgia, especially after 2020, has been seen as this replicable playbook and has been the sign of hope for the party and the landscape where there’s not many of those signs. I’m wondering, do you see what the national narrative has taken from Georgia as that confluence of factors you’re talking about? Because I feel like I hear just organizing led to the results. Is the narrative too simple?
The narrative is too simple and it’s too instamatic.
What do you mean?
It is a Polaroid instead of a documentary.
Can you say more there?
So if you take a Polaroid, it’s a snapshot of an instant and you get it right now. And it’s very gratifying. But the documentary is about how you get there. And it tells you all the pieces that came into being to make it so.
And winning elections in Georgia, the pieces that had to come together had to come together over time. They had to be sustained over time. This wasn’t this moment and this flash point. This was an operational initiative that took almost a decade to execute.
And so when you get to 2020, the confluence of events, you had to navigate voter suppression. And you had to convince voters who were not necessarily moderate voters — you had to convince conservative voters who shared a certain value system and found that their value system ran afoul of who was representing it. And so, yes, we pulled some of those voters over. But I think sometimes it is overstated how many of those voters actually swung in that year versus the migration that we had been able to create over the last decade. And, again, it’s very easy —
I wanted to ask you about your Republican opponent, Governor Brian Kemp. You have, particularly in that first race, characterized him as a real threat to democracy through his actions as both secretary of state and now in the governor’s office. How do you square that with his actions he took in 2020 to stand up against President Trump in his efforts to steal the election?
He didn’t commit treason. Every other governor also managed to not commit treason. We are lionizing someone because he did what every other governor in American history has done. That’s it.
But not everything the Republican Party has done, I mean, in that same moment?
But every Democratic governor in America did not commit treason that time. Every Democratic governor, every Republican governor did not commit treason. I don’t deny that it’s a good thing.
But it was also his job. And so I give him no credit. Because not committing treason should not be the benchmark for leadership and democracy.
I also wanted to ask about another —
Our paper has recently reported on a potential challenge for you among Black men. The idea in that story was that a meaningful percentage of them may not show up for you and that your campaign has now put a focus on them in doing that type of outreach. Why do you think that has had to become a focus of your campaign? Why have you all struggled there?
We have not struggled. Your story was wrong. And I’m going to say that very directly because in 2018, I had the very same conversations.
In 2018, I was castigated in Georgia because I was having conversations with communities that were marginalized and disadvantaged. And in 2022, I did the exact same thing because I know that these are persuasion voters. But I’m not persuading them not to vote for a Republican. I am persuading them that voting matters and that they can trust a political leadership that they have really never seen deliver for them.
And to that end, I am having explicit conversations with Black men because Black men are a large portion of our electorate and, thus, they deserve the kind of attention that Brian Kemp is giving to farmers. There’s not a single story in The New York Times about how Brian Kemp is going after the farming community, and does that mean he’s struggling with farmers because he doesn’t have every farmer voting for him?
Why then am I subject to this notion that because I’m talking to Black men to engage them, to make certain that they know and they see that I respect them, that this is somehow a sign of trouble? It is a sign of reality that every election, you have to go to the voters that you need and ask them for help. Our campaign has largely and long-standingly invested in the Black community.
We spend money. We hire from within. We pay assiduous attention, so much attention that The New York Times decided that it must be a sign of weakness as opposed to a campaign strategy that you win by getting voters to turn out for you. And I mean all voters, including Black men.
I want Black men to vote for me. I know that Black men have the deepest rationale for not being engaged in politics. And it is disingenuous for me to pretend that that’s not true and, more importantly, for me not to articulate why I am different. And that’s what these conversations are about.
One of the reasons I wanted to call you was because I feel like when I talk to Democrats, there is sometimes not an understanding of the structural challenges that they face —
— the depths in state legislatures that they face in the courts —
— in gerrymandering, in a lot of structural political fronts. And when I posed those questions to Democrats often, a lot of times, they point to you and Georgia as the way to overcome those barriers. I mean, I have you here. Do you think that you and Georgia are a response to those holes that Democrats are in?
We are absolutely one of the roadmaps. But what is so important is that people remember that while we’re writing our playbook, the other side is writing their playbook. What’s happening in the Supreme Court just this term, they are taking up a case that will essentially eviscerate voting rights at the state level for a generation. The Supreme Court is about to reduce every election decision going forward to the state legislature.
That also means that we will have Republicans — and they are already talking about it — in states like Georgia, where the number of Electoral College votes changed the outcome in ways they didn’t like — they will shift from a winner-take-all system that most states use to the system that is used by Maine and Nebraska where we will go to a congressional district. And so you talked about gerrymandering. Because of the extreme gerrymanders that were not only done in 2021, but permitted by a Supreme Court that said, well, we can’t do it because it’s too close to the election, those get solidified in ‘23. And Democrats won’t win another presidential election if instead of Georgia delivering 16 electoral college votes, we only deliver five because they’ve gerrymandered our congressional districts, so we only have five Democratic districts and the rest of the votes go. And the same things would happen across the country where Democrats lose governorships.
Yeah, I agree with you there. I’m saying, how does organizing overcome that?
But here’s what I’m saying. So part of how I organize is that we have to talk about what’s to come. It is uncomfortable. It is awkward. It gets people angry at you. But we have to discuss it.
Organizing is not this esoteric distance event. It is having conversations about the consequences of action. There is nothing permanent about our civil liberties or our civil rights in this country. And so, yes, I think that it is critical that Georgia be emblematic both in the sense of urgency because we are going to be ground zero for what can go horribly wrong, or we can be a beacon of light for what can go horribly right. And what’s happening in the next 36 days is deciding which direction we head in.
In that view, I want to turn to now because it seems like in part because of 2020, you are a unique gubernatorial candidate. I mean, you’re, frankly, much more famous than the other governor candidates on the slate across the country. I mean, you are president of United Earth via “Star Trek.” I’m wondering, as you run in this race now, how has that national name recognition and celebrity impacted your statewide race this time? It seems this is a different version, or at least a more well-known version of Stacey Abrams running this time around.
When I ran in 2018, I had very identical goals — education, housing, health care and making certain that people could have economic security. I worked well within our party. I built party capacity. I worked across the aisle. And I ran a very strong race that surprised a lot of people. And I got really close.
But the moment after that, I became an avatar for a number of things. I will be the first Black woman to become governor should I be elected. And for some, that is a moment of celebration. And for others, it is a moment of fear.
Nothing I’ve wanted, nothing I’ve suggested has changed. I’m not a different person in terms of my political philosophy or my policy prescriptions. But what has changed is that it could actually work. Because in 2020 and 2021, the architecture that I built in 2018 actually helped yield a result. And so one of the differences between ‘18 and ‘22 is that people have poured into me their hopes or their anger in ways that they didn’t in 2018. And that’s hard. Because I’ve become emblematic of both the things I do and the things that people are afraid of are being done or not done.
This inspired like two philosophical questions I might ask you. One then, do you regret leaning too far into that national profile then? If what we’re saying is that after 2018, some of that projection has come from what your name has come to mean in terms of national celebrity and profile, that’s something that you kind of controlled, yes? Was “Star Wars” a mistake?
OK, first of all, it’s “Star Trek.”
“Star Trek,” I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, fair, fair, fair.
OK, but let’s go back to 2019-2020. Let’s not forget that in 2019 and 2020, we were facing a crisis of democracy. And because of the organizational work that we did, one of the reasons I’ve been given some credit for the success was that we truly raised the alarms. And I was one of the voices that was able to concretize and explain why this mattered.
So do I regret helping organize and focus the minds of Americans on the threat to our democracy? No, my dad was arrested when he was 14 for registering Black people to vote in Mississippi. Instead of getting arrested, I got some magazine covers. But my mission, if you read every story, was about, how do we save democracy? How do we make certain we have an accurate census? How do we get resources to the food pantries that need it? How do we do right?
I don’t control the means of communication. But I am never going to shy away from telling people what they deserve and how they can get it. “Star Trek,” however, I have loved “Star Trek” since 1989. And I will never regret being able to stand on the bridge and be able to have that conversation. Because I will forever be able to live long and prosper.
No, no, no, I get that. What then would it mean — I know you don’t want to entertain the prospect — but what then would it mean if you lost the gubernatorial race? It would seem like in that same kind of projection, it will not just be a loss of Stacey Abrams as a candidate in Georgia for the second time, it would seem to be a blow to a political vision that you embody. Do you think that’s true?
There’s always going to be the worry that people extrapolate from one data point an entire narrative. And we see that happen. And it’s happening, unfortunately, in part, because of who I am pointing to as the solution. And this goes back to the very beginning of this conversation.
When Black and Brown people are seen as the means of success, it does not guarantee victory, but it guarantees continued engagement. I want the outcome of victory because I want to do the job of governor. But what undergirds everything I do is the obligation of access. People deserve to be heard. And I think what I demonstrated in the intervening four years since 2018 to now is that my responsibility is going to constantly be, how do I do the most good possible for the greatest number possible? And how do I encourage people to own and control their own power so that it doesn’t matter whose name is on the ballot — all that matters is who shows up to make the decisions?
Stacey Abrams, I appreciate your time.
Thank you. And thank you for very thoughtful and engaging questions.
Thank you, I take that to heart.
I mean it, no, and, no, look, I mean, I think these are conversations we have to have. And it’s —
— that led you to take up this story.
Well, we were reporting out a number of stories on that ground in Georgia. I was trying to talk to folks as close to the base, the Democratic base as possible — the community leaders, the county elected officials, the validators, if you will, who, in a race that is going to, we can, I think, safely say be decided largely on the margins that could come down to several thousand votes, these are the folks who I felt were going to make the difference in making sure that those people on either side turned out.
I mean, everyone seems to be in agreement that this race is going to be close. You were trying to figure out which populations could decide those thin margins.
Absolutely. And we also looked at polls that showed which groups, especially in the Democratic base, had been the most enthusiastic and which groups were lagging a little bit. And one point that stuck out to us was this underperformance that we had seen at that stage in the race that Democrats, particularly Abrams, had with Black men. We know that for her to be successful — and her campaign has said this too — she would need to perform with upwards of 85 percent to 90 percent of African American men in Georgia. Around the time that we were doing this reporting and looking at the numbers, what we found was they floated a little bit closer to 75 percent to 80 percent, so not a huge gap, but, again, if we’re talking about a race that will be won and lost at the margins, it was something that we felt we had to pay very close attention to.
And what did your reporting find about why Abrams might have, be having a tougher time this go round with groups like Black men?
Well, I’ll start by saying that we with all demographic groups, there is indeed a gender gap. And so Black men are no different from any other group in that a portion of Black men are more likely to defect to Republicans. However, we also know that in Georgia, Black voters are the base and the most loyal and, really, the most valuable portion of the Democratic base. And so we know that a vast majority of Black men will support Democrats and will vote for Stacey Abrams rather enthusiastically. What we’re asking about is the margins here. And it’s just a different game with Democrats in Georgia because you’re operating from the belief or from the understanding that you are having to galvanize just a lot of different types of voters in order to get them all to turn out for Democrats.
But depending on what strategy they deploy, it’s not the only group that could decide the election for Democrats, right? Let’s talk about the other voting group that your reporting focused on.
Well, the other group that we focused on and aimed to really unpack here were the group that really every candidate in every race knows that they have to have a critical mass of. And that’s those sort of moderate or conservative-leaning, largely white voters, who tend to swing one way or the other in any competitive race in Georgia, and for the last few years, have largely decided the outcome of these races.
What is your reporting finding of where those voters are in this race in 2022?
I mean, what we found right now just talking to people in these areas is that this is a group that has seen four years of Brian Kemp and is not unhappy — is relatively pleased with what the incumbent governor has been able to accomplish. And one thing that he has said is, look, you might not agree with everything that I say, you might not agree with everything that I do, but you can’t say that I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. And to a lot of voters, that’s actually a very effective message, even if it does mean some pretty far to the right policies.
This is a man who ran on a platform of getting in his pickup truck and rounding up “criminal illegals,” those are his words. So I’m not trying to paint him at all as someone who is trying to appeal to moderates. What he is trying to do is make sure that every single person in the Republican voting base in Georgia turns out. And then by making this sort of second term, I did what I said I was going to do the first four years, I’ll continue to do that the next four years, he too can chip away at these groups of voters at the margins — like these sort of conservative-leaning voters in the suburbs, to say, give me four more years to continue doing the job that I did.
The challenge for him has been catching up to the demographic changes in Georgia and sort of having to temper that language that does lean very far to the right to try to appeal to those people in the middle that we’re talking about. So, of course, there was all of this drama in 2020 where Kemp certified the election. And he came across as this hero of democracy that I think appealed in large part to a number of even liberal-leaning voters who liked to see a Republican who could stand up to Trump.
I believe that’s why you see Abrams pushing this message of, he did the right thing, he followed the rules, but that does not make him in any way some kind of a hero. In the minds of those in the middle though, they like that move. It’s like here’s someone who appealed to the far right sensibilities of the Republican base, but when it came down to the wire, did not betray lowercase “d” democratic principles. And, again, to this small slice of voters, who exist in this swing conservative-leaning universe, that could very well be enough for them to elect him to four more years. And that’s the issue that the Democratic ticket, particularly Stacey Abrams, are having to contend with.
I also feel like we might be talking around something here, which is not just who Abrams is running against, but how voters see her. In 2020, Biden asked moderate Republicans to bet on the Democrat who happened to be a moderate white guy, right? We talked to Jim Clyburn about how the white guy part of that was really key to them seeing him as electable. In Georgia, they did that. But Abrams is a Black woman and who is perceived to be more progressive up against that type of moderate white male figure that has historically and more traditionally holds seats like Governor. I don’t think that’s something we should skip over in terms of why some of these Biden voters might relate more to Kemp than an Abrams.
No, I don’t think we should skip over it at all. Like we have to acknowledge that this is a Black woman who is running to be something that Georgia voters, that American voters have never seen before — a Black governor of a Deep South state, a Black woman governor of a Deep South state, and someone who has been unapologetic in describing these policies that she supports and backing up with data and with her own knowledge how she thinks these policies will work in Georgia. You know, she’s not cowering away from her policy viewpoints.
She doesn’t back away from much of anything.
No, she really doesn’t. And I think that voters, they’re not used to seeing that. And it turns off a lot of voters. It just does, a lot of white voters in Georgia who have never seen anyone like Stacey Abrams before.
OK, let’s talk about where this all leaves us. Because Democrats are talking about this playbook as an important piece of the party strategy going forward. It is, frankly, the answer I get if you ask prominent Democrats about what they’re going to do about the Republican advantage in grassroots organizing all across the country. So what do you think the significance of this election will be when it comes to how the party thinks about this playbook in relationship to its larger strategy?
We have looked to November 2022 in Georgia and the outcome of this election as an answer to the question of whether or not this strategy of turning out infrequent largely voters of color, younger voters, people who exist outside of this universe of white, moderate, or conservative-leaning voters in the suburbs who tend to vote one way or another, whether or not that strategy is going to be effective and is going to become sort of political gospel in Georgia moving forward. Stacey Abrams has become synonymous now with that very strategy. And so it seems that if she does, indeed, lose in November, we could see a scenario in which people take that loss to mean that this playbook should just be thrown away, that Democrats should revert back to their strategy of appealing more to these moderate swing voters who are not very diverse, and then count on a strong enough showing of people of color, young people, infrequent voters, but not factor them in to the calculus of who needs to be persuaded, who needs to be talked to, who needs to be invested in. But I think Democrats, if they do indeed write off this entire strategy in Georgia and beyond, should the party see some major losses up and down the ticket in November, it would mean leaving voters on the table.
It reminds me of something Kellyanne Conway told me, which is that in running the Trump campaign, she said they understood that there was not a cap on a single group of voters and that Trump had to break rules to appeal to what ended up being the key demographic group that unlocked his 2016 equation — white working class voters, particularly non-college white voters, and that was a group that the establishment was kind of leaving behind. It feels like Stacey Abrams is asking Democrats to rule break, frankly, and embrace a demographic group that could unlock political possibilities for them. But breaking those rules also for Republicans has kicked off a whole party internal fight.
Because it’s turned off a lot of college educated moderates who have started voting for Democrats because of the way that Trump and the Republican Party has embraced this new type of messaging to drive out the base. It strikes me that same kind of cost benefit analysis can be true when we’re talking about Democrats and Abrams, right? Like she’s asking them to invest in a strategy that more directly centers messaging to Black men, to young people, to underrepresented groups, to rural voters and the like.
And it seems like doing that might also come with a cost of turning off some of the voters who definitely vote and who are those moderate swing people in the middle. So we should also probably acknowledge, right, that it is a hard line to walk. And the biggest proof point of that is what happens on the Republican side over the last 10 years.
Yeah, and, I mean, look, Democrats have had a hard time trying to do a very hard thing, which is hold all together as one coalition the same white college educated moderate voters who largely exist in the suburbs alongside these voters like Black men at the margins who don’t feel like their needs have been listened to, young voters who feel homeless politically in many ways, first time voters, disaffected people of color. All of these people have been able to be added to the Democratic coalition in Georgia, as we saw in 2020. But the question now for the party, for Democrats in particular, is, how do you hold all of these people together as one national coalition across several different states over time?
Why do a risky thing in talking to these communities who may or may not come out when you can do the easy thing and tailor your messages to the communities who most likely come out?
Exactly, which seems like a short-term response to a long-term dilemma.
I want to pick up on what Maya was saying. Democrats have often deployed a short-term political strategy that focuses on moderate voters in hopes to seize on weak Republican candidates. And sometimes it works. For example, in the other big midterms race in Georgia, the incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock has benefited from a controversial Republican opponent in Herschel Walker, whose scandals have hurt his standing with moderate swing voters in particular. That’s raised the possibility that Democrats could succeed in the Georgia Senate race even as Abrams falls short in her own race. But the point of the playbook is less about immediate victories and more about a long-term strategy for Democrats to build a grassroots machine of their own — one that’s on their own terms, empowered by previously ignored voters who’ve been apathetic and mistrustful that the system can deliver for them.
Next time on “The Run-Up”: how Republicans have already seized control of two key parts of the system and are, once again, a step ahead.
“The Run-Up” is reported by me, Astead Herndon, and produced by Elisa Gutierrez and Caitlin O’Keefe. It’s edited by Frannie Carr Toth, Larissa Anderson and Lisa Tobin, with original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano and Elisheba Ittoop. This episode was mixed by Brad Fisher and fact checked by Caitlin Love. Special thanks to Paula Szuchman, Sam Dolnick, David Halbfinger, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Shannon Busta, Nell Gallogly, Jeffrey Miranda and Maddy Masiello. Thanks so much for listening, y’all.