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Georgia voters showed us these 3 things about the fall election

Jerry Marinich (right), the Forsyth County, Ga., Republican Party chairman, poses at the party headquarters with Bea Wilson and Ed Murray, two recently trained poll watchers.
Steve Inskeep
/
NPR
Jerry Marinich (right), the Forsyth County, Ga., Republican Party chairman, poses at the party headquarters with Bea Wilson and Ed Murray, two recently trained poll watchers.

In Atlanta's distant suburbs, voters across the political spectrum report that local life is good in 2022 — but the direction of the country is not.

That's one of three major insights we gained while interviewing voters in a key state. We visited two metro Atlanta counties — one blue and one red, both prosperous, populous and diverse.

In this fall's elections, Georgia's U.S. Senate race could plausibly decide control of the entire Senate. The governor's race and legislative contests may decide who writes, signs or vetoes abortion legislation after an expected Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade. The overall results may show the level of former President Donald Trump's influence in a state at the center of his efforts to overturn his election defeat in 2020.

We interviewed 36 people in Democratic-leaning Gwinnett County and Republican-leaning Forsyth County, ranging from local officials and activists to people we found by knocking on doors.

Meeting people face to face in their neighborhoods offers insights that public opinion polling may not. It's useful to see where people live — the geography, the economy and who lives next door. We asked people open-ended questions about what was on their minds rather than specifically prompting them as polls do.

We came away with three insights that seem likely to apply to elections in many parts of the country.

People like the direction of their communities, yet worry about the country

The blue and red counties are both growing: Metro Atlanta is a corporate, technology and cultural center. Both reflect the national economic recovery from the pandemic.

Gwinnett's affordable housing market has fueled phenomenal growth for 30 years: The population has nearly tripled in that time, approaching 1 million. Forsyth's population has more than quintupled in the same period, from 44,000 to about 250,000. New housing developments fill valley after valley. Both counties have attracted migrants from across the nation and around the world; nearly everyone we met was originally from somewhere else.

Prosperity is not universal. We visited immigrant neighborhoods where many people crowd into a single house. Inflation is climbing in Georgia, like everywhere.

Yet residents told us they like where they live, and when asked to name concerns in their community, most in both counties found little to be concerned about.

A farmer's market in downtown Norcross, Ga., is one of the places where an NPR team spoke with voters.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
A farmer's market in downtown Norcross, Ga., is one of the places where an NPR team spoke with voters.

Forsyth resident Vicky Lou Kerner follows politics — she has decorated her restaurant with a sign reading, "Warning: Does Not Play Well With Liberals" — but when asked about local issues mentioned only traffic and construction, problems associated with growth.

Joan Van Lake of Gwinnett didn't name any local concerns.

"My issues are more national," she said.

Talking at a farmer's market in the prosperous town of Norcross, she expressed concern about "the Big Lie and what just came out from the Supreme Court," referring to false claims of a stolen presidential election in 2020, and a leaked draft opinion suggesting the court is close to overturning a constitutional right to abortion. She supports abortion rights.

Some parents worry about what's being taught in schools — but not necessarily their own. This reflects a national trend.

Vicky Lou Kerner is the owner of Vicky Lou's Burgers in Forsyth County, Ga. The signs posted on her counter include one that reads, "Warning: Does Not Play Well With Liberals."
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
Vicky Lou Kerner is the owner of Vicky Lou's Burgers in Forsyth County, Ga. The signs posted on her counter include one that reads, "Warning: Does Not Play Well With Liberals."

Some people don't plan to vote this year.

"I don't have the knowledge to vote correctly," said Bradley Coughlin of Gwinnett, who voted in 2020 to get Trump out of office, but says he doesn't know congressional, state or local candidates as well as presidential contenders.

All this is consistent with the information environment. The number of local newspapers in many communities has declined in recent years, while national media are more polarized.

People in both the blue county and the red county look out their windows at growing, livable, diverse American communities. Then they read stories of a nation in grave peril from the other party. Those who do vote are likely to act on national issues.

Americans are politically segregated

Studies find Americans increasingly geographically divided by political party. This segregation is visible on county-by-county election maps, where big metropolitan areas tend to be colored deep blue, and rural areas deep red.

Gwinnett and Forsyth are next to each other, affected by many of the same cultural and economic trends, yet in 2020 Gwinnett voted 58% for President Biden and Forsyth voted 65% for Trump.

It's not clear from studies how often people move specifically for political reasons, but our random interviews found people who said they did.

Esther Harding lived in Gwinnett years ago, when its populace was more Republican. After seeing the county change, she moved a year and a half ago to a new neighborhood in Forsyth.

This recently built neighborhood in Forsyth County, Ga., is in a rapidly growing area that now has its own new state legislative district and is one of the areas where an NPR team went door to door talking with voters.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
This recently built neighborhood in Forsyth County, Ga., is in a rapidly growing area that now has its own new state legislative district and is one of the areas where an NPR team went door to door talking with voters.

"Forsyth is a great county to live in," she said. "It's not as Democratic ruled as Gwinnett is. ... That's super important for us because, you know, we have values and in Gwinnett, you don't get those."

Asked which values she meant, she listed opposition to illegal immigration, opposition to abortion and her concern about "what the kids are being taught in school."

Her main concern is the governor's race.

"[I'm] just praying that Stacey Abrams won't take over," she said, referring to the Democratic candidate. Harding is concerned enough about this to support incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, even though she's unhappy with Kemp for affirming Trump's 2020 defeat.

Her next-door neighbor told us she moved from Los Angeles to Forsyth County partly because LA was "so Democratic," allowing too much "freedom" and "sexuality."

The diverse electorate is contested

Both the red and blue counties reflect America's demographic changes. Both have growing numbers of people of color and immigrants. Gwinnett is especially diverse: Its population is nearly one-quarter Latino, largely of Mexican descent but with many other nations represented. There are substantial Black and Asian populations.

Up to now, diversity has been good for Democrats. As recently as 10 years ago, Gwinnett was a Republican county that voted for Mitt Romney for president. A changing electorate brought Democrats to the fore, not only voting for Biden but controlling the entire five-member county commission.

Similar changes across the nation fuel some conservative conspiracy theories.

A campaign sign for a Republican candidate in Forsyth County, Ga., plays off the Fox News logo.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
A campaign sign for a Republican candidate in Forsyth County, Ga., plays off the Fox News logo.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson is a leading advocate of "replacement theory," an unfounded claim that Democrats are "replacing" current voters with new ones.

It draws on racist ideas that foreign voters will be more "obedient," to use Carlson's word. The national demographic change colors debates over immigration, policing, history, education and almost every other issue.

Yet Republicans have been fighting for a share of the more diverse electorate. In Gwinnett County, Republican-led redistricting created a red-leaning state legislative district that includes a large Korean American community.

The Republican candidate, running unopposed in the primary, is Soo Hong, a Korean immigrant and lawyer. Hong told us she is "definitely" part of an effort for her party to win over voters of color.

"I don't think diversity means Democrats," she said.

<em></em>Iris Magayon, a shop owner in Gwinnett County, Ga., is a native of Mexico who recently obtained her U.S. citizenship and is preparing to vote in her first U.S. election.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
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NPR
<em></em>Iris Magayon, a shop owner in Gwinnett County, Ga., is a native of Mexico who recently obtained her U.S. citizenship and is preparing to vote in her first U.S. election.

Republicans have opened community centers in Black and immigrant neighborhoods around metro Atlanta. Their likely U.S. Senate candidate is Herschel Walker, who's Black. The onetime football star is endorsed both by Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

National political analysts took note in 2020 when Trump fared better than expected among some groups of Latinos in South Florida and South Texas. Republicans in 2022 hope to widen that opening. National Democrats differ on how seriously to take this threat. Some wrote off the 2020 results to local factors, while others worry about a serious erosion of their coalition.

Our interviews with voters in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties suggest Democrats have some reason to worry. We found several immigrants, from Latin America and beyond, who were socially conservative; who oppose illegal immigration (saying they came legally); or who voted for Trump in 2020.

We also met a Gwinnett County shop owner, Iris Magayon, who's an immigrant from Mexico and recently became a U.S. citizen. She's preparing to vote in the U.S. for the first time and has been following events by way of a local TV station, CNN and Fox News.

Brenda Lopez Romero, Democratic Party chair in Gwinnett County, stands in front of an early voting center outside Norcross, Ga.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
Brenda Lopez Romero, Democratic Party chair in Gwinnett County, stands in front of an early voting center outside Norcross, Ga.

So far she feels strongly about one issue: She worries that schools are encouraging children to "pick and choose who they want to become" regarding gender and sexuality, which is a Republican talking point.

Brenda Lopez Romero, Gwinnett County's Democratic chair and herself an immigrant from Mexico, told us Republicans have done better than Democrats for years in targeting messages to the Latino community.

She said many Latinos worry about more than immigration issues, and Democrats must "ensure that prosperity is available for everyone," especially working-class families.

"The election cycle is going to be won by the Latino vote," she said, "and not enough has been done to ensure that we continue to reach out ... including here in my county, and that's the work that we still have to do."

The audio for this story was produced by Nina Kravinsky and Chad Campbell, and edited by Kelley Dickens. Rachel Treisman produced it for the web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 22, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous photo caption misidentified the Republican Party chairman for Forsyth County, Ga., as Joe Marinich. In fact, his name is Jerry Marinich.