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Can President Obama win Georgia?

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When President Obama was elected in 2008, some of the biggest surprises on election night came in the South, where Obama won longtime Republican redoubts like North Carolina and Virginia.

Now, as the president launches his reelection campaign, his advisers are already talking about victory in another southern state: Georgia.

In an interview this weekend with the New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina broached the idea that the president could win in the Peach State.

“If you look at the new Census numbers, you would think that Georgia would be in play. You would definitely think that Arizona would be in play — as I think it is,” Messina said. “Those are states where we didn’t play in last time.”

Messina, of course, isn’t promising victory; he’s simply making the case that the there are new targets out there for Obama.

But the mention of Georgia is very interesting given that the Republican presidential nominee has carried the state in six out of the last seven elections. (Bill Clinton won it in 1992.) Could Obama break that trend?

Messina rightly notes that Georgia turned in some of the most surprising Census numbers in the country this year.

Its black population increased more than almost any other state, rising from 25.6 percent in 2000 to 30.5 percent last year. Meanwhile, the burgeoning metropolitan Atlanta area continues make the state more urban and more educated – and, in the process, more Democratic.

We’ve seen this movie before. Obama’s strength among black voters, young voters and highly educated voters spurred his wins in North Carolina and Virginia in 2008. Georgia was initially one of the Southern states that Obama aides talked about targeting, but they wound up canceling ad buys and pulling much of their staff out in early September.

“It’s easy to look at numbers and see what Jim Messina sees, but the fact of the matter is, when you’re on the ground in Georgia, it’s apparent who’s going to win here in 2012,” said Brian Robinson, deputy chief of staff to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who was elected in November.

Georgia is certainly moving in the right direction for the president. Obama took 47 percent there in 2008, which was the highest percentage for a Democrat in the Peach State since former President (and Georgia governor) Jimmy Carter ran for reelection in 1980. (Clinton carried the state with 43.5 percent in a very competitive three-way race with George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.)

The rise in the black population means Georgia has considerably more black voters than either North Carolina or Virginia. And given how close Obama came to winning the state in 2008, it’s a logical target for 2012.

But there are several things working against him too. While there are some similarities between Georgia and the so-called “new South” states that Obama won in 2008, there are differences too.

Georgia is more deep South than new South, and you see that when you analyze the white vote. While 35 percent of white voters in North Carolina voted for Obama, just 23 percent of white voters in Georgia did, according to exit polls. That number is more on-par with a state like South Carolina (26 percent of white vote) and closer to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi — where Obama took high teens of the white vote — than North Carolina and Virginia.

While white voters in Georgia supported Obama more than in some other Deep South states, it’s hard to win a state when the state’s largest demographic group votes against you three-to-one. Georgia remains a majority-white state, and Obama would need more white votes, in addition to the growing black vote.

Second, replicating the turnout model from 2008 will be tough. Obama successfully turned out black voters and young voters in an unprecedented way. Those groups — particularly young voters — stayed home in droves in 2010 and there remain big questions about how energized they will be for the Obama re-election race.

There’s also the matter of the mobilized opposition. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) didn’t quite inspire Southern Republican voters in 2008, but Obama’s presidency certainly got them voting in 2010.

Democrats got a strong rebuke in the South in 2010, including Republicans taking big majorities in the Georgia legislature and winning every statewide office. Since then, more than two dozen Southern state legislators — nine Georgians among them — have switched from Democrat to Republican.

Lastly, the Obama infrastructure isn’t the same in Georgia as it is in places like North Carolina. While Obama spent lots of resources building up his campaign for North Carolina’s May 2008 primary, Georgia’s primary got lost in the shuffle by being held on Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, 2008. (North Carolina is getting even more attention this time, with Democrats holding their national convention in Charlotte.)

Like North Carolina, Georgia also saw significant increases in voter registration in 2008, but it’s not clear how much of that was to Obama’s benefit since the state doesn’t register by party.

All signs are pointing in the right direction for Obama to have a chance to win in Georgia, but sometimes getting from 47 to 50 percent of the vote is a lot harder than it may seem.

“I don’t know that Georgia is there yet, in terms of the changes,” said David Bositis, an expert on African-American voters at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That doesn’t mean it’s not close to being there.”

More than likely, a win in Georgia would highlight another huge wave in Obama’s favor. Put simply: If he wins Georgia, he wins, period. And probably by even more than he did in 2008.

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