Many voters find it very easy to make choices in the November general election. All that strong partisans need do is find their party’s candidates and vote for them.
It is harder in a primary since all of the candidates belong to the same party. Who is the best choice? Voters could read the candidates’ platforms, watch debates, attend nearby political events and listen to the candidates. But any of these would take time. Even reading the platforms might not be that illuminating since as members of the same party, there may be only nuanced differences in candidate stands on many issues.
Candidates realize that most voters will not make a major investment to discern policy differences so campaigns provide easy cues that may influence voter choices. Candidates list the schools they attended, their religious activities, stress their military service when appropriate and identify social groups to which they belong. They may take pains to have the family dog in the family photo that graces mail outs. Voters who see little difference in primary opponents will often vote for the candidate with whom they share a tie identified through the campaign literature.
The tendency for voters to gravitate toward candidates with whom they share ties is likely to be the decisive factor in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Both of the women, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, have served in the state House. Both are attorneys. Both have inspirational personal stories as their success has been largely self-made with achievements beyond those of their parents.
Race is an obvious dimension on which the two differ and that may determine the outcome. In recent years, more than 60 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary have been African Americans. In the most recent mid-term primary, 2014, 65.5 percent of the Democratic votes came from African Americans. Of the Democratic primary voters, 42.1 percent were black women. White women cast only a sixth of the votes with white men accounting for about an eighth of the participants. These figures help explain the results of a recent poll done by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs that found Abrams with about twice the support for Evans although about half of the likely Democratic voters had yet to make a decision.
Not every African American will vote for Abrams nor will Evans get all of the white votes. If, however, Abrams gets 70 percent or more of the African American turnout and if the makeup of the 2018 electorate is similar to that in 2014, she will emerge as the nominee. Stacey Evans clearly recognizes the challenge she faces. In an attempt to make in-roads among black voters, one Evans’ television ad features a black student who charges Abrams with selling out black students when helping Republicans come up with a fix for the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship.
Evans has gotten the endorsements of several high profile African-American public figures. Critical for her success will be for these endorsements to bring a large share of the black electorate to her side.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Richard Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia and co-author of Georgia Politics in a State of Change and The Three Governors Controversy.