Will Immigration Turn Gwinnett County Blue?

Governing's December cover story is about how immigration is changing Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. Here are the basics: In 1990, Gwinnett was 91 ...
by | December 11, 2009

Governing's December cover story is about how immigration is changing Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. Here are the basics:

In 1990, Gwinnett was 91 percent white. Now, it is a different place altogether. "Gwinnett as a whole," says Bannister, "is becoming a majority-minority group of people." In fact, it already is one. In the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey, released this fall, the white population was down to 49.9 percent. Marina Peed, an affordable housing developer who works county-wide, says that "there's no lily white anymore anywhere in the county. I doubt if there's a single all-white subdivision in the whole county."

Today, Gwinnett has large populations of blacks, Hispanics and (perhaps most surprisingly) Asians. The county has substantial populations from Indian and Vietnam, as well as people of Asian (especially Korean) descent who are from elsewhere in the United States.

When I read this story, I thought the same thing I think whenever I read anything: What are the political implications?

We learn in the story that Gwinnett's County Commission still consists of five white, conservative Republicans. Nonetheless, I was curious whether the county, as it has become less white, has become less conservative and less Republican. While no place is exactly like Gwinnett County, whether places somewhat like Gwinnett County are becoming less Republican is a very important question.

Southern suburbs and exurbs tend to be some of the more conservative places in the country. For the past decade, they've also been among the fastest growing.

After the 2010 Census, reapportionment is going to shift some political power to Southern states, with Texas, Georgia and Florida expected to gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Within Southern states, redistricting will shift power to the fast-growing suburbs and exurbs, which will affect state legislative politics.

Gwinnett County is a good example of this development. Georgia's population has grown by 18% so far this decade, which puts the state in line to gain one House seat. Gwinnett County's population has grown nearly twice as fast.

At least in the short-term, these trends are good news for Republicans. Longer-term, though, the political implications aren't clear because it's not obvious (to me, anyway) who all of these new Southern suburbanites are.

Are Southern suburbs growing quickly because white, conservative Republicans are having lots of white, conservative children? Or are they growing quickly because lots of new people -- people who might not be white, conservative or Republican -- are moving in?

In a lot of places, I'm sure the answer is some of each. But, in Gwinnett County, it's more the latter than the former. How is that immigration changing or not changing politics in Gwinnett County? As usual, I have a chart.

Gwinnett County

What you see here is the performance of every Democratic candidate for president, U.S. Senate and governor who has competed in a contested general election (I didn't include the runoffs) since 1990, when Gwinnett County was 91 percent white. As you can see from the difference category, in every one of these elections Gwinnett County voted more Republican than the state as whole.

The trend in that category, however, is clear. In the 1990s, Gwinnett County was almost always at least ten percentage points more Republican than the state. This decade, the difference typically was in single digits. In 2008, in both the Senate and presidential race, it hardly existed at all. As it has become more diverse, Gwinnett County has gone from being one of the most Republican parts of Georgia to a place that votes a lot like the rest of the state.

But, here's the twist. That's mainly occurred because the rest of Georgia has become a lot more Republican. Democrats used to dominate in rural Georgia. They don't anymore.

Gwinnett County has actually been remarkably consistent, given all of its demographic changes. Other than the uniquely popular Zell Miller, every Democratic candidate was stuck somewhere between 29% and 37% in the county until last year. Last year looks like a pretty big breakthrough, though President Obama's campaign created turnout dynamics that aren't likely to be replicated, except, perhaps, when he's on the ballot again.

The lesson to me is that immigration changes politics very slowly. That makes sense. Many of the first-generation immigrants can't vote. Plus, I'm not sure whether people of Korean or Vietnamese or Indian descent (as opposed to blacks and Hispanics) actually vote Democratic -- though I'd guess they'd be more likely to vote Democratic than white Southerners.

As a result, it's probably good for national Republicans that Gwinnett County will have more clout after reapportionment. A congressional seat centered there is more likely to vote Republican than one that's disappearing in New York, Ohio or Michigan.

On the other hand, if I were a Georgia Democrat I wouldn't be displeased that Gwinnett County will command more seats in the state legislature after 2010. While most of those seats will start the decade with a Republican lean, the demographics of the area are changing fast enough that they could present opportunities for the party by the end of the decade. At the very least, I have to think Gwinnett County presents a better opportunity for Democrats than the rural parts of the state that so recently deserted the party.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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