Why Bill Clinton May Make All the Difference in Georgia

The nation's so-called first black president is going where the actual first black president cannot: The South.

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Former President Bill Clinton campaigning with Michelle Nunn in Georgia.

Photograph by Getty Images

Bill Clinton never mentioned Barack Obama by name. But that wasn't necessary, not in this crowd.

The former president had come Friday to Paschal's, the famous Atlanta soul food restaurant, as the Democrats' closer, the man who gives them their best chance to squeeze out a Senate victory in this rapidly changing Southern state.

Standing beneath a six-foot-tall portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he urged the crowd to vote, saying Republicans were more focused on the White House than the issues. "They're saying, this is your last chance to vote against the guy," he said, pausing to gesture at a group of elderly civil rights leaders watching from the balcony. "We've seen this movie a thousand times before—those of us who are above a certain age."

The nation's so-called first black president is going where the actual first black president cannot: The South. While black voters still support Obama, his low popularity with the general electorate makes him a liability in states with competitive Senate races. The problem is particularly acute in the South, where Democrats are counting on solid support from working-class whites as well as high turnout from black voters in states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. 

Enter Bill Clinton, who in 1992 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to sweep a swath of the South, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and his home state of Arkansas. Today, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are in heavy demand in Senate races in those states. His stop in Georgia was sandwiched between campaign events in Kentucky and North Carolina; she is due in New Orleans on Saturday to campaign for incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu.

Their Southern strategy underscores an argument by Hillary Clinton supporters: That her presidential candidacy could help Democrats regain ground in the South, which turned red in 2000 and remained so during the Obama presidency.

"Both with women and men, the Democrats have very significant challenges winning votes among working class whites,'' said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid. "One of the things that's interesting about Hillary Clinton is the votes she can get that other Democrats can't."

In 2008 and again four years later, Obama's campaign focused on broadening the Democratic coalition by getting greater numbers of young people, Latinos, and black voters to the polls. Team Clinton wants to keep those gains, but also see an opportunity to bring back some of the party's traditional working-class white supporters.

Georgia could provide one of the best tests of that theory. The state's population grew by nearly 20 percent over the last decade, with much of the influx coming from minorities and more progressive whites.

Democrats and their allies have spent months working on extensive voter registration efforts. The New Georgia Project and a dozen partner organizations say they've registered 80,000 new voters. (The group is now embroiled in a series of lawsuits with the Republican secretary of state.) Latinos, who make up 4 percent of the Georgia electorate, have been conducting their own efforts, registering new citizens at naturalization ceremonies, partnering with Hispanic media, and canvassing neighborhoods. They've signed up more than 7,000 newly naturalized citizens over the past year, said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "When we first started this year, Latino voters didn't know there was an election,'' he said.

But Democrats cannot win on minority votes alone. Even unusually high black support won't be enough unless Democrats capture close to 40 percent of the white vote, according to recent analyses.

That's where the Clintons come in. Joseph Crespino, a professor of Southern political history at Emory University, said they remind voters of the popular, pragmatic Southern Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s. "The Clintons are perfect,'' he said. "They have a great relationship with the African-American community and they don't alienate the white voters."

In Atlanta, supporters lined up outside Paschal's, the historic center of black political power, where civil rights leaders once planned marches, Jesse Jackson kicked off his presidential campaigns, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. loved the vegetable soup. Today, the banquet hall is surrounded by quirky coffee shops and trendy lofts–a sign of the rapid pace of change in the city.

Yet reminders of history were also on display as Clinton stood beside Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter. Clinton campaigned with Nunn's father, a long-serving Georgia Senator who endorsed Clinton early in his first presidential bid. He spent decades working and sparring with Carter's grandfather, Jimmy–another Southern governor who ended up in the White House.

"I wanted to be Sam Nunn when I grew up,'' Clinton said. "He proved you could be a Democrat and be for civil rights, and be for inclusive government, and be for a strong national defense."

On the balcony, some of the civil-rights leaders who once frequented the restaurant cheered, including Representative John Lewis, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

Community leaders had their theories about why they were hearing from Clinton and not Obama, though they were reluctant to spell it out too clearly. "President Clinton is someone who speaks in tones that the African American community relates to, so there's still a great deal of affection," said Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King's old congregation. "Not just from African-Americans, but all Americans."

And at least a few in the crowd remembered Clinton's first presidential race, when he crisscrossed the state, selling his southern background to rural farmers and urban Atlantans. "I grew up in the segregated South," he told black college students in February 1992, less than a mile from Paschal's. "Every time we have permitted ourselves to be divided by race in this region, we have been kept dumb and poor."

Though 22 years have passed, his message on Friday wasn't much different. "I'm used to having my kinfolks played in every election. Get people mad and they can't think,'' he told the crowd. "Don't be fooled–and don't let the young people stay home." 

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