Demographically, North Carolina and Georgia are similar. There are about 7.7 million eligible voters in Georgia and 7.8 million in North Carolina. Each has roughly the same share of people who are 25 or older with college degrees. Among the 2020 battleground states, Georgia had the highest share of Black voters in its electorate, and North Carolina was second. 

Electorally, they share some things as well. In the 2020 election, Georgia was the state Joe Biden won where he had the smallest share of the vote. North Carolina represented the same for Donald Trump. 

Famously, Stacey Abrams and her team spent years building political infrastructure in Georgia to make that victory possible. But in North Carolina, Reverend William Barber similarly engaged activists across the state in the years-long Moral Movement campaign — generating tons of headlines and attention. 

Today, though, the political future in North Carolina looks worse for progressives than that in Georgia. And a new white paper from Theda Skocpol, Caroline Tervo, and Kirsten Walters argues that the different model of power that each leader pursued is part of the reason why. You can check out a set of Powerpoint slides with some of the takeaways here

Rev. Barber became the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP in 2005. Almost immediately, he began pushing the organization to pursue a social justice agenda. By 2007, he built a coalition of two dozen policy organizations, advocacy groups, labor unions, and religious congregations to advocate for a broad set of progressive policy priorities — ranging from educational development to civil rights to unionization. 

While Democrats held power in Raleigh, they achieved some policy wins. Workers at a Smithfield pork-processing plant won union recognition. They advanced some reforms of the death penalty to reduce racial bias. But many priorities of the Moral Movement never made their way out of committee in the General Assembly, and when the Republicans took power after the 2010 midterms, their aims were completely blocked. 

At that point, Rev. Barber and his coalition used public demonstrations and civil disobedience to protest the GOP’s agenda. Tens of thousands joined marches in Raleigh in 2013 and 2014. Hundreds were arrested at sit-ins at the legislative building. But the movement’s efforts to translate that activism into field organizing or voter registration drives during the 2014 midterm fell short, and Democrats in the state lost more ground. 

Stacey Abrams was elected to the Georgia legislature in 2006 and became House Minority Leader in 2010. As the head of the Democratic caucus, she traveled the state to meet with party leaders, local elected officials, and activists. 

From the start, her focus was electoral. In 2011, Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo — a labor organizer and long-time campaigner — began working on a 10-year plan to expand Democratic electoral success in the state. They focused on registering larger numbers of Black voters and reaching out to other growing demographic groups. That effort, which became the New Georgia Project, invested heavily in field efforts. One initiative helped sign Georgians up for health care under the Affordable Care Act. Others focused more explicitly on voter registration and education. 

Eventually, Abrams and her team created a wide constellation of 501c3 and 501c4 organizations — with overlapping prerogatives. Even before she ran for governor, Abrams was raising millions of dollars to fund her operations and achieve a clear set of goals. 

To assess the impact of the efforts from Barber and Abrams, Skocpol, Tervo, and Walters looked at Black voter turnout retention and Democratic two-party vote shares in both states in the elections after 2012 — when Barack Obama was no longer on the ballot. They also made qualitative assessments of other movement driven outcomes. 

They saw much more power in the Abrams approach: “In contrast to what many social movement scholars presume, if the goal is to engage formerly excluded or nonparticipating minority citizens, it can pay off to link civic groups rooted in specific communities to a reformed, well-resourced state Democratic Party and associated candidate campaigns — especially if leaders keep a majoritarian focus, persist for years, and learn from defeats and set-backs along the way. Movement effects in elections are likely to be bigger and more enduring if organizational capacities are persistently deployed on the ground. Bursts of media-worthy protests are unlikely to suffice.”

The persistence point is key. 

Skocpol, Tervo, and Walters also point out the divergent investment from national Democrats in the two states. Stretching back to 2008, North Carolina has received far more support — in staffing, advertising, and in-person visits from presidential candidates — than Georgia. But those efforts are concentrated over relatively-short campaign windows. Abrams and Democrats throughout Georgia have been more dedicated to the goal of infrastructure building for the party. And now, a decade after they laid out a 10-year plan, that’s paying off. 

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