COVINGTON, Ga. — Not long ago, Elizabeth Allen and Wanda Cummings were on the same side of America’s political divide.
Both were reliable Republican voters in a reliably conservative part of a reliably red state. But Cummings and Allen have changed, and so has their state, Georgia. They just haven’t changed in the same way.
Allen, a nurse, grew up idolizing Ronald Reagan but couldn’t stomach President Trump’s disregard for facts or civility. When she cast a vote for Joe Biden this year — helping him to swell his margins in the fast-growing suburbs of Newton County and claim Georgia’s 16 electoral votes — it was the first time she had ever marked a ballot for a Democrat.
Cummings, a retired antique store owner, moved from Newton and found ideological kinship just across the county line, in rural and ever-redder Jasper. She reluctantly backed Trump in 2016. But after his four years in office, she — and her new county — turned out for the president with gusto.
Allen and Cummings crossed lines that in America today increasingly resemble a chasm. Unlike some previous elections marked by either a blue or a red wave, the 2020 vote featured both. And in many parts of the country, they crested side-by-side, with the turnout and margin for Trump surging next door to areas that boomed for Biden.
The boundary between Newton and Jasper counties — amid pine forests and cow pastures southeast of Atlanta — is one such place. How it evolves will help determine whether Georgia stays blue in future presidential contests and, more immediately, whether Democrats can take control of the Senate via a pair of runoff elections in January.
The widening gulf between Newton and Jasper — as is true with the divide nationally — has many features, but can be summarized in three words: diversity, diplomas and density.
On one side, Newton is a fast-developing, multicultural county with sprawling housing developments, an increasingly educated population and Hollywood and Silicon Valley buoying the local economy. The Confederate monument that has loomed over the county’s central square for more than a century is on its way out.
On the other, Jasper is a predominantly White county that has retained far more of its traditional character, with large housing lots, farms and wide-open vistas dominating a landscape that feels further from Atlanta than the 60 miles shown on maps. Here, the Confederate monument will stay — at least for now.
For residents and visitors alike, the differences are stark.
“When you cross over the line,” said Cummings, “you cross over into a whole other country.”
That the division exists at all is a relatively new phenomenon, and it reflects the transformation underway in Georgia that enabled Biden to win in a state that had not been carried by a Democrat in nearly 30 years.
Both counties have traditionally been rural emblems of the Old South, their picturesque central squares dominated by clock-tower-topped courthouses. Newton was the real-life backdrop to the “Dukes of Hazzard” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Locals say either of the counties’ two main cities — Covington in Newton, Monticello in Jasper — could be mistaken for Mayberry.
But Newton has, with time, become more integrated into metro Atlanta. Workers commute into the city — just over 30 minutes from Covington to downtown — and city residents have moved out to Newton in search of more land at lower prices.
“The county has changed a lot,” said Cedrick Hamm, the third generation of his family to operate the Town House Cafe, a Black-owned Covington staple since 1965. “You can’t find houses out here anymore. They’ve all been bought up.”
The change has had a pronounced political impact.
As recently as 2004, both Newton and Jasper voted overwhelmingly for the Republican, George W. Bush, in the presidential race.
Four years later, the counties began to diverge politically: Jasper voted 2 to 1 for John McCain, while Newton went for Barack Obama by the barest of margins, just over 1 percent.
Since then, the disparity has only grown. In 2020, amid record-breaking turnout, Biden won Newton County by 11 points. Trump won Jasper by 53.
The political gap reflects a pronounced demographic difference: Newton is about three-quarters the size of Jasper, but it has a population that is 10 times as large. It is wealthier — attracting tech investments as well as directors looking to shoot their latest film — and has twice the percentage of residents with a college degree. It is also majority minority, while Jasper remains nearly 80 percent White.
Cummings had lived in Newton for 20 years. But when her husband fell ill in 2018, she closed the family antique store and moved to Jasper, a place where political beliefs and values better aligned with her own. It’s become a well-worn path for former Newton residents — many of them White — who have decided the county is no longer for them and prefer to be farther from the city.
“Newton County has gotten to be a suburb of Atlanta,” Cummings said. “Jasper County’s not. It’s still just very laid back and quiet.”
She had voted for Trump in 2016 as “the lesser of two evils.” Four years later, her feelings were very different. “I thoroughly enjoyed him as president,” said Cummings, who approvingly described him as acting “like he’s a regular guy.”
Back in Newton, Allen was having the opposite experience. A lifelong Republican who learned to revere Reagan from her World War II-veteran grandfather, she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Trump in 2016, especially after he mocked people with disabilities. But Allen, whose youngest son has special needs, couldn’t imagine voting for a Democrat, either.
This year, the 44-year-old cast her ballot for Biden, a vote she said was equal parts repudiation of Trump and endorsement of the Democrat.
“I’m not saying he’s perfect,” she said. “But he’s a good man. He kind of reminds me of John McCain.”
Allen can trace her family’s history in Newton back five generations, a legacy highlighted by both farmers and soldiers.
“I haven’t asked which side we were on during the Civil War,” she said. “Probably the wrong side.”
But when a movement erupted this summer to banish Newton’s Confederate monument from Covington’s central square, following the killing of George Floyd, she was all for it.
Allen, who has seen firsthand the toll of the coronavirus from her post as an emergency room nurse, used to be active in the local Republican Party.
“They blocked me on Facebook because I was giving facts,” she said. “They didn’t seem to like that.”
It is just that sort of political vitriol that Ryan Barrett saw feeding support for Biden as he spoke with voters across Newton in the campaign’s final weeks.
The 33-year-old head of the Newton County Democrats said his side was energized by the country’s cumulative exhaustion. After four years of chaos under Trump, “people just wanted things to get back to normal,” said Barrett, an emergency room technician when not practicing politics. “People were tired of it. They were tired of the ‘Jerry Springer Show.’ ”
Not so in Jasper. Along the county’s 300 miles of dirt roads — not to mention its paved ones — Make America Great Again flags and signs were ubiquitous, even weeks after the vote. In a county won by Trump by a 3-to-1 margin, it could be hard to find people who did not want four more years.
“Everybody was pretty happy,” said Mary Patrick, chair of the Jasper Republicans. “Like it or not, Trump is very popular. You don’t have somebody have rallies with 30,000 people or even 10,000 people if they’re not popular.”
Patrick helped to organize get-out-the-vote efforts for the president in Jasper, and found success: In a county of only about 14,000 people, Trump won 1,400 more votes than he had in 2016.
But those results — and others like them across rural Georgia — were canceled out, and more, by what happened in the cities and suburbs.
In Newton, about 8,000 voters turned out for Biden beyond the number that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. The surge stemmed from a concerted voter registration drive launched statewide by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said Barrett, a veteran of her campaign.
“Each side dug deeper into their base,” said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie. “It just so happens that Democrats have the growing base.”
With Georgia’s population becoming more diverse, more urban and better educated, there are reasons to think that, with time, Jasper will start to resemble Newton. The first test will come in January, when Trump will no longer be on the ballot — but two Senate seats and control of the upper chamber will be.
“This whole state is going to get more Democratic,” said Hamm, whose down-home cafe is a magnet for local politicians of all stripes. “Newton County is just ahead of the state.”
That is what Patrick, the GOP leader in Jasper, fears, as newcomers priced out of the market closer to Atlanta make their way to her county.
“All we can do here in Jasper is make sure that we try to keep it red and that the people moving here aren’t going to try and turn it blue,” she said. “That’ll be a big challenge.”
For now, at least, that sort of transformation seems a distant prospect.
Bryan Standifer, the first Black mayor of Monticello, backed Biden enthusiastically. But few among his White neighbors in Jasper did the same.
The president, Standifer said, had played on racism and other divisive tactics to win a “cultlike following” that has made it difficult for Black and White residents of Jasper to talk politics with one another. That, he said, isn’t going away, even when Trump is no longer president.
“Joe Biden got the most votes of any elected president in U.S. history,” Standifer said. “But guess who got the second most? Trump. That tells you there’s still a lot of division.”
Willis reported from Covington and Monticello. Witte reported from Washington.