Joe Biden, Raphael Warnock
Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock leave Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta after a 2023 service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Alex Slitz/AP

Democrats Say Georgia Looks Bleak for Biden. Can North Carolina Save Him?

Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020, stunning Republicans, infuriating Donald Trump and giving Democrats hope that they’d found a new path to the presidency through the South. But ask Democrats about Georgia today, and they might talk about North Carolina instead.

In more than a dozen interviews in recent weeks, Democratic officials have acknowledged an uncomfortable truth: With Biden’s poll numbers flagging, and without Sen. Raphael Warnock on the ballot to pull him across the finish line, the president faces a much more daunting challenge to win Georgia than he did four years ago.

“2024 is going to be an uphill battle for Biden without Warnock on the ticket,” said Le’Wanna Heard-Tucker, chair of Fulton County’s Democratic party.

John Jackson, former chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Party who worked for Warnock’s 2020 campaign, said the same: “I think it’s going to be tough to win Georgia again because not all the factors that led to Georgia going blue last time are there this time.”

The Biden campaign insists it’ll compete to win in Georgia, but if it falls short there, it’s already laying the groundwork for an all-out effort to win another state: North Carolina. According to Democrats tracking the effort, the president’s reelection campaign is convinced that the state — which Democrats haven’t won in a presidential race since 2008 — is finally ready to turn blue.

“From talking with the president and his campaign people, I believe they are going to be all in on North Carolina,” the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, told NOTUS. “Because if he wins this state, he wins reelection.”

Taken together, the pessimism about Georgia and the burgeoning effort in North Carolina suggest that part of next year’s presidential battleground map remains in flux — and that Biden’s path to reelection could look different than it did in 2020.

Raphael Warnock, Joe Biden
Biden campaigns for Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Atlanta in 2021. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

The North Carolina push in particular represents a calculated gamble for the president, who’s trying to win at least one state he lost in 2020, even if doing so risks siphoning limited resources from other electoral battlegrounds. And it’s a clear shift from 2020, when Biden’s campaign, in the view of many Democrats in the state, spent only enough money in North Carolina to force Trump to defend it.

The optimism over North Carolina, which state Democrats say started to take shape shortly after Biden took office, is driven by demographic changes, potential weaknesses within the North Carolina GOP — including the state’s near-ban on abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s controversial run for governor — and renewed manufacturing investment in the state.

It’s also a sign that the Biden campaign is aware it needs to maintain as many paths to 270 electoral votes as it can, mindful that it might not win all of the swing states it did in 2020 — including Georgia.

Some grassroots liberal leaders in Georgia have warned that investment from big national donors — money that funds vital voter turnout operations — has slackened in their state this year, in what they say is a possible indication that Democratic leaders don’t consider the state a top battleground in 2024.

“What we’re hearing is, it’s not, like, first tier,” Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the voter mobilization group Black Voters Matter Fund, told The New York Times last month. “So that’s a little disappointing but we don’t know exactly yet what that means. But some early indications are that it’s not going to get top-level prioritization.”

The Biden campaign says it will invest significantly in both Georgia and North Carolina and expects both states to be competitive. “President Biden and Vice President Harris have a strong record — lowering costs for families, protecting access to affordable health care, and fighting against MAGA extremist abortion bans — that resonates in Georgia and North Carolina and will mobilize the voters we need to win in 2024,” spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement.

Rep. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said pundits had counted out her party’s chances in 2020, 2022 and run-offs in both elections.

“But Georgia voters proved them wrong, and made their voices heard time and time again, delivering big wins for President Biden and Democrats,” she said in a statement sent from the Biden campaign. “Now we’re ready to continue building on that success, strengthening our party, and investing in the infrastructure needed to deliver President Biden and Vice President Harris to victory. The South has something to say, and Georgia voters will be ready to prove the doubters wrong once again next November.”

Polls paint a much tougher picture for Biden, who is hovering around 40% nationally and trailing Trump in Georgia by 49% to 44% in a hypothetical two-way matchup, per a December CNN survey.

Sources say the strain is only accentuated by an acute fear among some Democrats that the president will struggle to win over Black and independent voters in Georgia without the tens of millions of dollars Warnock’s Senate campaign spent on voter contact. Warnock’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The senator’s unique appeal to Georgia’s polarized electorate helped the Baptist preacher win back-to-back hotly contested elections.

He defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler by roughly 93,000 votes in the January 2021 Senate race runoff. Months earlier, Biden defeated Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes.

Warnock’s campaign brought in more than $125 million that election cycle, which allowed him to target often overlooked voters whom previous Democratic campaigns considered a lost cause. “I think that’s something the Warnock campaign has done a good job at: They’re really good at appealing to your everyday people who may not watch MSNBC or Fox News, and be hyperpartisan,” said Jackson, the former DeKalb chair.

Warnock appeared to distance himself from Biden during his 2022 run due to the president’s poor approval ratings, only to welcome the president back to the state after securing his reelection.

Biden and Harris have visited Georgia 11 times since taking office; six of those visits happened this year. Meanwhile, the two have visited North Carolina a combined 14 times since taking office, including five appearances in the last year.

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris speaks at an event at Durham Technical Community College in Durham, N.C., in 2022. Ben McKeown/AP Photo

According to online ad spending data obtained by NOTUS, the Biden campaign has spent more than $325,000 in North Carolina since announcing his reelection bid; that’s more than it spent in the top battleground state of Arizona in the same period. The campaign had spent more only in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Georgia.

Still, some see the president’s intention to compete in any state he lost in the last race as foolhardy. Republicans won North Carolina’s recent U.S. Senate races, took control of the state Supreme Court, and gained a supermajority in the state legislature. Former President Barack Obama was the last Democratic candidate to win North Carolina, and he lost the state during his 2012 reelection bid. Hillary Clinton made a major push to win the state in 2016, only to lose it by more than 3.5 percentage points.

“Hillary went searching in 2016 for her multiple paths, and in some ways, let her guard down on what should have been their wall,” said Liam Donovan, a veteran GOP strategist.

“The tension here is, as the president’s standing looks shaky, what is your inclination? Is it to double down on the places where he won in 2020? Or is it to find creative ways to lean into the emerging Democratic coalition?”

Biden does not need to win Georgia or North Carolina next year to return to the White House for a second term. But without them, he would have little room for error in the other most closely contested states, including Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where his poll numbers are also lagging.

Publicly, prominent Georgia Democrats say Biden remains on track to win the state. Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, elected in the 2020 election cycle alongside Warnock, told NOTUS the influx of manufacturing in his state — both Rivian and Hyundai have announced new EV facilities since Biden took office — and the popularity of measures like the infrastructure law would propel the president to another victory next year.

“With so much good news in Georgia over the last three years, I think the president’s in a strong position,” Ossoff said.

Rep. Hank Johnson said he expects both Ossoff and Warnock will use their popularity to help Biden. “Voters care about what they think, and they are available to help drive out votes,” Johnson said.

But privately, some Democratic officials offer a bearish assessment of Biden’s chances in Georgia. A House Democrat from the South who supports Biden’s reelection told NOTUS that Democratic voters regularly approach him fretting about the president’s chances for reelection and that everyone is “freaked out.”

When asked if he thought Biden could win Georgia again, he replied, “I don’t think anyone thinks that.”

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Ben T.N. Mause and Calen Razor are reporters at NOTUS and fellows at the Allbritton Journalism Institute.