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Georgia on the mind of the Trump and Biden campaigns as the key state holds primary

Former President Donald Trump and President Biden don't agree on much politically, but they do agree that Georgia is key to winning the White House.

Trump earned the state's electoral votes in 2016. Then, Biden narrowly clinched it in 2020 by about 12,000 votes, so a path to victory is not unreachable for either one of them.

But Georgia is also a state that highlights some of the obstacles both candidates face heading in the general election, like Trump's criminal indictments - including facing charges in the state itself - and a shrinking Republican tent, to an enthusiasm gap for Biden's campaign among nonwhite voters and concerns over his handling of conflict in Gaza.

Both Trump and Biden visited Georgia ahead of Tuesday's presidential primary, though seemed more focused on November with their messaging.

Trump has spent the last three years insisting he didn't lose the state, putting it been on the frontlines of the fight over the direction of the GOP and how Trump-like its future should be.

Biden won in Georgia by stitching together a disparate coalition that he needs to replicate this year, including young people, Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters and moderate suburban types that backed his campaign in 2020.

Many of Trump's supporters see no flaws...

Trump is more capable of running a country. He's a self-made billionaire and he knows what he needs to do.

Lauren Tucker was one of the first few people in line to visit the Forum River Center in Rome, Ga., to see Donald Trump, nearly 12 hours before Trump took the stage.

The rally was a packed arena of a few thousand people in heavily-conservative northwest Georgia, featured opening speeches from Trump-aligned politicians like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rep. Mike Collins, upbeat music from Trump's signature rally playlist and, amidst a sea of MAGA hats and presidential paraphernalia was Tucker, decked out in red white and blue eye shadow and an American flag cowboy hat.

Tucker, a 38-year-old mother of six and owner of a makeup business in Rome, said she's never been this devoted to any other politician, and liked Trump because "he's not afraid to voice his opinion."

"The way that he handles things, the way that if something needs to be taken care of, he doesn't care what people think," she said. "He takes care of them, and he does the best thing, what he thinks is best for the country."

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at the Forum River Center March 9 in Rome, Georgia.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at the Forum River Center March 9 in Rome, Georgia.

Ethan Moon, a 19-year-old from nearby Chattooga County, said that Trump did not have any weaknesses heading into the general election and that Biden's mind isn't where it needs to be to be president.

"Trump is where he needs to be, and Trump knows what he needs to have to do," he said. "Trump is more capable of running a country. He's a self-made billionaire and he knows what he needs to do."

Supporters like these are why Trump says things like this at his rallies:

"You know, they always like to say 'Two very unpopular people are running,'" he said in a mock news anchor voice. "I'm not unpopular... I'm at 92 or 94% in the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was at 86%. It's fake news. These are fake news people."

In the closed ecosystem of a Trump rally, if you're not 100% with Trump you're a Democrat or RINO, a Republican in name only.

...but neither do Biden's

We're still excited about Biden and, you know, he's still Uncle Joe. We still trust him, and he's showed up. And I don't see a problem. I don't think we're going to fall off.

Meanwhile, about 70 miles southeast – 90 minutes or so, give-or-take Atlanta's infamous traffic – President Biden met with an intimate, excited crowd in a repurposed building at an old railyard east of Atlanta.

"Three years ago, you helped the Democratic ticket and won Georgia the presidential election for the first time in 30 years," Biden said, urging the room of a few hundred people to show up and do it again.

Adrienne White, who used to work as a state Democratic Party official, said reports about Biden's struggles with Black voters like herself are overhyped.

"I think it's ludicrous," she said. "We're still excited about Biden and, you know, he's still Uncle Joe. We still trust him, and he's showed up. And I don't see a problem. I don't think we're going to fall off."

"I think we're going to show up and show out and really show how strong and how much we continue to want him to be president," she added.

White said Biden should get credit for a soft landing with the economy that avoided a major recession, among other policy wins in his first term.

"I've been pleased with what he's done with education, forgiving student loans, which I know many people are dealing with," she explained. "And a lot of the funding that's coming into the state: oftentimes different bodies in the state try to take credit for some of these projects where we know these funds are coming from federal dollars."

Paula Benson, in white, attended a rally for President Joe Biden in Atlanta and hopes voters aren't complacent in November.
Megan Varner / Getty Images
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Paula Benson, in white, attended a rally for President Joe Biden in Atlanta and hopes voters aren't complacent in November.

Then there's 56-year-old Paula Benson, decked out in a t-shirt that said "welcome to JOE-gia," and a button that said "I'm on board."

"I'm on board with Biden and Harris this year, mostly because I need them to bring get our women's rights back," she said. "I have two daughters in their twenties and they need to have reproductive rights.

Benson works in sales and lives in Forsyth County, a fast-growing exurb of Atlanta that is still red but becoming less so. She's worried about people not showing up to vote and being complacent come November.

If she could counsel Biden on giving a sales pitch to her neighbors, she says it would be talking about ways to tackle inflation and immigration.

"Well, I mean, it was really close four years ago, so I'm sure we'll be just as close," she said. "But I think we need to be very scared of the alternative who just is not an acceptable candidate."

Voters who show up to campaign events are typically more optimistic about their candidates' chances, and since Trump and Biden have won Georgia once before, many of their supporters think they will do it again.

'We need you to do the right thing'

There's polling data and real-world evidence that both Biden and Trump face challenges convincing people to vote for them again, especially in Georgia, where in many ways the 2020 election never ended. For some, this is really the fifth year of the Trump versus Biden contest casting its shadow over the state's politics.

At the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, there are some Democrats and Republicans with a more clear-eyed view of the pitfalls the presidential candidates face in the Peach State that also give two things to look for under the hood of the primary results that – shocker – will see Trump and Biden win.

Rep. Ruwa Romman, a first-term millennial Democratic state representative
who has spent more than a decade doing voter outreach in Georgia, said there are signs that people aren't as excited about this election cycle.

"A big chunk of it is people are really upset they have to go through another election cycle where it's Biden versus Trump," she said.

Romman is also the state's only Palestinian American elected official, and said she voted a blank ballot in the Democratic presidential primary because of a belief Biden needs to do more to stop conflict in Gaza.

"We're saying, please understand, there is a sizable group of people that can absolutely have your back come November," she said. "But we need you to do the right thing or else we are going to really struggle to turn our communities. Because I promise you, me being Palestinian, if I go tomorrow and I tell my community to vote for Joe Biden, before we've seen a serious change in policy, they are absolutely going to turn against me, too."

Romman says it's not just conflict in the Middle East that could see fewer voters show up for Biden, though she said it's not a niche issue either. Romman thinks the broad coalition Biden cobbled together in 2020 to win is now comprised of fractious groups that each has its own reasons to expect more from the president.

Current polling shows Biden lagging with key Georgia demographics, like young voters, Black voters and other nonwhite voting blocs. But Romman says there's still time for Biden to turn things around – and for these constituencies to get out the vote.

At Biden's Atlanta campaign rally, three of the largest political action committees representing Black, Latino and Asian American voters endorsed the president and announced a $30 million campaign to reach those voters, on top of newly-announced spending from the campaign in battleground states and targeting key demographics.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling testify during the fourth hearing held by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2022.
Michael Reynolds / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling testify during the fourth hearing held by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2022.

'It's not rocket science'

It's been a losing streak for Republicans: lost in 2018, lost in 2020, the ones who glommed on to 'Stop the Steal' lost in 2022. We barely won the House. We lost the Senate again.

The rift within the Republican party may be a little bit harder to patch, especially given Trump's track record nationally and in swing states like Georgia.

Gabriel Sterling works in the Georgia Secretary of State's office and clashed with Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential over misinformation, death threats and more stemming from false claims of election fraud.

"It's been a losing streak for Republicans: lost in 2018, lost in 2020, the ones who glommed on to 'Stop the Steal' lost in 2022," he said. "We barely won the House. We lost the Senate again. We lost the Senate twice because of Trump decision making and Trump endorsements."

Sterling said the underlying idea of Trump's campaign being "Biden wasn't honestly elected" has taken hold of too many Republican voters and could cause problems for both elections officials and for the party.

Even though the winners of Tuesday's primary elections are foregone conclusions, Sterling said one thing to watch is well educated suburbanites that, so far, have been voting for Nikki Haley in the GOP primary.

"This isn't rocket science, I mean you can see the people who are uncomfortable with President Trump," he said. "They were the reason he won in 2016 and the reason he lost in 2020. Those are sort of the new swing voters."

NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.