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Conservative Convergence in High-Growth Counties: Theory Meets Reality (Part One)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
September 1, 2017

The recent election held in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District provided an informative glimpse into the political cultures of growing metropolitan counties. The race attracted national and international attention along with a flood of campaign financing. The setting was the immediate northern suburbs of Atlanta, within the context of its rapidly expanding metro area. The district’s boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census and included eastern Cobb County, northern Fulton County along with northern DeKalb County. This article discusses the context of the election leading to a second article that will present implications for public administration.

Georgia_congressional_districtsWith promising candidates and an invigorated Democratic and Republican base, the election was fought at a very competitive level. Pundits of all persuasions galvanized the mainstream news and social media with an endless array of assumptions and predictions. Many on the left gleefully anticipated a reversal of the momentum had placed Donald Trump in the White House while conservatives on the right clung to the political legacy of the district which has held Republican since Newt Gingrich was elected in 1979. But most of the commentary missed the hardened political reality of these counties that made the result inevitable; growth had enhanced its right of center views creating a solid conservative convergence. Although the margin of victory was narrow, the race was all but assured to go to the Republicans from the start based on the political culture found within large, sub-sections of Fulton and Cobb Counties.

The history of regional growth provides an important contextual background. In the 1950s, the post-war baby boom along with accelerating mobility brought urban sprawl to numerous regions including Atlanta. At the start of the decade, its Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) included only three counties. Fulton County contained the main part of Atlanta which spread its eastern boundaries into a small portion of neighboring DeKalb County. But Cobb County, located on the north-western perimeter of Fulton, was geographically separate. Atlanta’s border stopped at its eastern boundary.

Within six years, regional growth added a fourth county to the MSA while the City of Atlanta expanded through annexation within Fulton County. Atlanta now touched the south-eastern edge of Cobb County. Urban realities were now perched on its doorstep. Today, the Atlanta Metropolitan Region includes 29 counties but the boundaries of the City of Atlanta have not changed.

Cobb County is an Edge County based on its velocity of growth and its location at or near the periphery of its metropolitan region. Between 1990 and 2010, Cobb County added 240,333 residents, an increase of 53.68 percent. Its current population is 748,150, making it the third most populous county in the state of Georgia. Its economy grew in tandem with its population growth providing an annual household income based on a 2010 estimate of $65,522 and family income of $78,920.

As Cobb County grew both numerically and economically, its existing conservative political values remained. In Presidential elections, it has consistently voted Republican with few exceptions. In 2000, they gave George W. Bush 59.8 percent, increasing his margin to 62 percent in 2004. During the Obama sweep in 2008, they voted Republican by 54.2 percent increasing the margin to 55.4 percent in 2012. In the most recent Presidential race, they gave Clinton a narrow victory with 48.8 percent of the vote.

Fulton is a Core County, based on the inclusion of the region’s largest city within its borders. It also experienced rapid population growth adding 271,630 residents between the same twenty-year period at a rate of 41.86 percent, most of it occurring outside the boundaries of the city of Atlanta. Its economy also grew at an impressive rate as well with a household income of $56,709 and a family income of $75, 579.

But Fulton County has voted solidly democratic. In 2000, it supported Gore by 57.8 percent, increasing the Democratic margin to 59.3 percent in 2004, providing solid support for Obama with 67.2 percent in 2008 and 64.3 percent in 2012. In 2016, they retained their Democratic majority with a solid vote of 69.2 percent for Clinton.

On the surface, it was easy to understand why the Democrats believed a victory was attainable in 2017. So how could these two growing counties with relatively dichotomous political cultures deliver a conservative vote in 2012 or more precisely, where was the conservative convergence?

The answer: both of these counties contain major sub-regions within their boundaries that were recognized when the congressional boundaries were drawn. Cobb County’s most conservative culture is found in what is commonly referred to as East Cobb County while Fulton County is split between north and south with Atlanta lying squarely in its middle. These political enclaves are also symptomatic of larger, more significant issues that impact public administration, particularly at the county level since much of their work on behalf of the State and Federal governments is related to the distribution of social programs and tax resources. This will be the focus of the next article in the series dealing with rapidly growing counties.

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He recently completed his DPA at Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties, located on the periphery of metropolitan regions. He heads his own consulting firm guiding local governments in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves as the current President of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA. Contact: [email protected]

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