Biden and Trump seek to hold together fraying coalitions in battleground Georgia

The headwinds facing President Joe Biden’s reelection bid are as apparent in Georgia as any battleground. So, too, are the questions of whether Donald Trump can capitalize on them.

The president and his predecessor are set to face off in a historic CNN debate Thursday night in Atlanta — the first for either man since the 2020 election. It’s taking place in one of the nation’s most competitive swing states, and a rare example of a Republican electorate that did not side with Trump as he sought to punish those who refused to support his false claims of widespread election fraud.

“President Trump still has to earn these Republican voters,” said Kelvin King, who was among Trump’s most prominent Black supporters in Georgia in 2016 and 2020. “He can win, but he’s got to earn it.”

King, who met with Republicans in all of Georgia’s 159 counties during an unsuccessful bid for US Senate in 2022, said he has come to the realization that Trump should spend far more time articulating his ideas for the future than relitigating the past.

“It’s almost like a bucket of water with a hole in it. He’s trying to find new voters to fill up this bucket, but there’s a hole that’s leaking a lot of Republicans out,” said King, who founded a political outreach group, Let’s Win for America, to spread a conservative message to minority voters. “He’s going to have to plug that hole.”

Four years ago, Biden defeated Trump by 11,779 votes out of 5 million cast – the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Georgia in nearly three decades.

Unable to accept his loss, Georgia became an early epicenter of Trump’s election denialism — eventually leading to criminal charges against the former president.

In 2022, he backed primary challenges against Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after they didn’t go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 results — but both easily fended off those Trump-backed rivals and won reelection.

How the former president balances his complaints about the last election with his plans for the next one could help determine how competitive the state remains heading into the fall campaign.

“Re-litigation is not going to drive people to the polls,” King said, “at least not the folks in the middle, the votes that we need.”

Biden spending big in Georgia

The Biden campaign and its allied groups have spent $16.5 million here on advertising – nearly five times as much as Republicans, which Democrats say is a sign they are committed to trying to win the state again in November.

Mirroring the themes both campaigns have focused on nationally, the Biden ads have cast Trump as a threat to democracy and highlighted the former president’s legal troubles.

“This election is between a convicted criminal who’s only out for himself and a president who’s fighting for your family,” a narrator says in one spot.

The pro-Trump group Securing American Greatness hammers Biden for inflation.

“Atlanta rent is way up, food prices soaring to record highs but Biden claims he’s lowering costs. Is it dishonesty or dementia?” a narrator says.

One part insurance policy, one part viable path, the Biden team is blanketing the state in the days leading up to Thursday’s debate with 200 events across Georgia.

“We’ve never not shown up to vote. This year it won’t be any different,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, a former Atlanta mayor who also worked in the White House as a senior adviser to Biden. “We’re going to show up and I believe President Biden will win Georgia again.”

Asked if the race was more difficult the second time around, she said: “Elections aren’t ever easy, but the choice is clear.”

‘It’s not worse!’

The CNN debate on Thursday between Biden and Trump – the earliest general election debate in memory – has captured the attention of Atlanta voters like Democrat Mariama Davis, who said she has high hopes for Biden’s chances in November.

“You know what you’re getting with Joe Biden,” Davis said in an interview in her store, the Beehive. “He doesn’t pull any punches. He’s a straight shooter and I’m happy to see more of the same.”

Asked whether she was better off today than four years ago, Davis paused and answered with careful deliberation. She said she appreciated the student loan forgiveness from the Biden administration as well as other assistance programs during the pandemic recovery.

“They feel pretty much the same,” Davis said, quickly adding: “It’s not worse! It’s not worse!”

While it’s hardly the slogan the Biden campaign is banking on, it taps into a sentiment often expressed by supporters like Davis. Her small business, like so many others, has been on an economic roller coaster ride.

“How has inflation affected our business? It’s affected our business like it’s affected all businesses,” Davis said. “If people have the choice to buy eggs or food or gifts, we still expect them to buy food for their families. But our doors are still open so we’re grateful for that.”

Paths to 270 electoral votes

Georgia is among the battlegrounds Trump is trying to win back, along with Arizona, while also targeting Nevada, which he lost twice. Biden could lose all three and still win reelection, if he holds the “blue wall” of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as a single electoral vote in Nebraska.

To keep all pathways open, Democrats are making big investments in Georgia. More than a dozen campaign offices have opened in the state, including one that Vice President Kamala Harris christened last week.

“Through this office right here, we will gather, we will organize, we will build community, we will build a coalition,” Harris said. “There is power in the collective and in our unity.”

That fraying coalition is one of the most pressing challenges facing the Biden campaign.

“Young voters have a lot of homework to do,” said Kerry Singleton Jr., who graduated from Morehouse College last month. He was among the students who voiced frustration at the administration for failing to deliver on all of its promises, telling CNN last year: “As we hold Trump accountable, we have to hold Biden accountable.”

But after hearing the president deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College and focusing more acutely on the choice in November, Singleton now sees it differently.

“My disagreements previously do not matter as much as the two people that we have as choices here,” Singleton said. “To me, former President Donald Trump just isn’t an option whatsoever.”

The question is whether Singleton stands alone or represents a broader view among young voters.

Looming over the contest is how engaged the state’s Black voters become in the race and whether Biden or Trump deliver a debate performance that moves an otherwise stagnant campaign less than five months before Election Day.

Asked whether he’s worried about Trump winning, Singleton replied: “Absolutely. If he’s elected, that’s a very scary feeling as a young Black male.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the name of the Georgia political outreach group founded by Kelvin King.

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