Georgia has not quite adjusted to its newly acquired status as a swing state. In Fort Valley, a small town about a hundred miles south of Atlanta, locals respond to questions from journalists with some of their own.
“What are you doing all the way down here?” and variations on that theme, come up often.
Like it or not, voters in this formerly deep red state are now at the centre of one the most consequential elections in a generation.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won Georgia since southern man Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, but there are signs things may be changing. Shifting demographics have made the state younger and more diverse, narrowing the typical Republican margin of victory over the years.
Joe Biden’s campaign is hoping this is the year is the tipping point, and has peppered the state with visits in the final stretch: Kamala Harris, Jill Biden and the former vice president himself have passed through in the last week.
The race here, according to the polls, is too close to call. But there are reasons to look to Fort Valley for clues about who might emerge victorious nationwide in November.
The town of around 8,000 is situated in Peach County, which has picked the winner in the presidential race in every election but one in the last 30 years (the only one it got wrong was Al Gore, by a margin of 15 votes). It is also one of 209 counties across the country that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016.
Like much of the country, the biggest issues for voters here are the economy and the pandemic — their views on them largely depend on their opinion of the person in charge of handling both.
“There’s just so much lying going on. I’m just fed up with the lying,” says Ray Taylor, a 76-year-old retired mechanic, as he leaves a polling station at the county courthouse, referring to media coverage of the president.
“There’s so many things that’s happened with this coronavirus and all this other mess. I just think they outta leave him alone and let him go ahead and do what he needs to do,” he adds.
Mr Taylor is representative of a large swathe of rural voters who still support Trump here in Georgia. While the president’s detractors are horrified at his racism and inability to contain a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, many of his supporters point to his pre-pandemic record on the economy as reason enough to vote for him again.
“I don’t really see much that he did bad,” says Mr Taylor, when asked how Mr Trump has benefited the country. “He confronted China, he did a lot with energy. He’s made the country more independent. He did a lot.”
The economy is something that comes up a lot.
“I believe in capitalism,” says Marlene, a supporter of Mr Trump who emerged with her husband Rick from the same polling station. Both declined to give their last name.
“I believe in jobs and prosperity. I think Trump has brought a lot more jobs to the United States. I know we’ve had problems with the virus, but if he stays in office it’ll go right back up again” she adds, referring to the economy.
Her husband Rick agrees: “My 401k definitely increased. I just think he has a better idea of how to handle this economy than Biden does. It turns into a trust factor. I don’t trust Biden.”
“In the debate, he made it clear he wants to get rid of fossil fuels, and I don’t think the United States is anywhere close to being at that point,” he adds.
Fort Valley has seen better days. Between 2010 and 2018 — at a time when Georgia’s economy was growing rapidly — the town’s population shrunk by 8.6 per cent to 8,962. The median income in Peach County is $42,000 — far lower than the national average of $68,000 and even statewide average of $55,679.
But Republican Party officials are keen to talk up the economy here and across the state.
Julie McCook, the chairperson of the Peach County Republican Party, was born and raised here, and describes it as a “very caring, loving community” — but not a wealthy one.
And yet she points to the rapid growth in nearby Byron, and the arrival of a large Buc-ee’s — a huge convenience store chain due to open in Fort Valley in November that will create some 200 jobs — as signs of progress.
“I think before the pandemic hit, our economy was really soaring,” she says. “The price of fuel is down, groceries are down — the things that cause hardship on people, they're able do more cause the dollar stretches further.”
Another sign of economic success and longevity, she adds, sits on the edge of town. A giant lot full of hundreds of yellow school buses sits on the main highway. Blue Bird corporation, a bus manufacturer, is “the glue that holds the town together,” McCook says. It recently celebrated its 93rd anniversary, and currently develops zero emissions buses that are sold across the country.
The coronavirus has hit the economy here, like everywhere else. In April, more 614,000 were out of work. That number stands at 316,740, up 3.2 per cent on the year.
“When [the virus] it first came about I don't think anyone realised that it was as serious as it is. And as soon as the Trump administration realised, they closed off the borders. I think they did the best I could to try to get a hold of it,” says McCook.
The polls suggest Mr Trump’s strength in the state is based on white Georgians without a college degree. A recent New York Times/Siena College survey found they back the president 76-18 — a level that has held since the last election in contrast with the rest of the country, where Mr Biden has made gains with the group.
So if there are few signs of a drop off in Trump’s support among rural voters in Georgia, how do Democrats win the state? The key issue is turnout — crucially, turnout of Black voters. Democrats have built a formidable base in Atlanta and its suburbs, but to win they will also need to make gains in places like Fort Valley.
That means bringing out those same voters who turned out for Obama. Turnout among African American voters in Peach County dropped from 73 per cent in 2012 to 54 per cent four years later.
“We have way more votes in Atlanta, down here we just need to increase our total number of voters,” says Randy Goss, chair of the Peach County Democratic Party.
To make that happen, Democrats have invested heavily in get-out-the-vote campaigns across the state. Barack Obama appears on radio and television ads all day every day. As does Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams, who came within 55,000 votes of winning the governorship in 2018.
In fact, it was Ms Abrams’ campaign that set the blueprint for how to increase voter turnout in favour of Democrats. She focused her efforts on turning out young and minority voters, also “low frequency” voters.
“The main thing I’ve seen change here in Peach County is the level of enthusiasm. People are just over the negativity of this administration. They are over the Twitter stuff. They are tired of it. That is driving enthusiasm,” says Goss.
“There has also been a lot more voter education on our side than in 2016. That’s something Republicans historically had an advantage with and we have caught up,” he adds.
There are signs that it might be working. At the Fort Valley courthouse polling station, a number of voters tell The Independent they are casting their ballot for the first time. Eighteen-year-old Dezarae Perry is one of them.
“Our voices haven’t been heard, so this is our chance,” she says of teenagers like her. “A lot of us are getting out here to vote because this is the most intense election. We’re receiving more news and emails and voting — get out and vote, get out and vote, it’s every day.”
Another voter, who gave only her nickname “Glamour”, works in healthcare in Peach County.
“This is my first time voting and I’m 25-year-old,” she says. “I feel like we’re kinda doomed either way. I’ve never watched any presidential debates until the last one. I only caught a few minutes of it, and it was just so immature.”
Although she is not keen on either candidate, she says she is voting for “a more mature president, a president that cares about everybody.”
Twenty-one-year-old Isaac Wasson, a student at Georgia tech, grew up in nearby Houston County. His dad currently lives in Fort Valley.
“I think it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility that Georgia could flip this year,” he says, adding that he predicts a huge turnout here.
“Most of what I’m basing that on is that state of the nation as a whole. We’re in the same situation that a lot of classically red states in that I think we’re gonna have unprecedented voter turnout, and any time you have higher voter turnout that typically tends to favour the left.”
“I think people are fed up with the way Trump acts. He’s not going by a lot of the standards and norms that past presidents have.”
But Wasson, and others, are wary that the unprecedented interest in this election could also drive turnout for Republicans and Trump. The president held a rally for thousands earlier this month in the city of Macon, less than thirty miles north of Fort Valley. Donald Trump Jnr followed a week later.
“You’re never gonna win by a blowout race here, it’s always going to be by a tight margin,” says Goss.
But he’s optimistic about how the Biden campaign has invested cold hard cash in Georgia. The campaign has spent some $5.6mn in the state in the final month of the campaign.
If the Democrats do win Georgia, Goss would like to see a Biden administration step up for the people who would hand him that victory.
“I’d like to see an administration that invests and has a concrete plan for infrastructure — we haven’t had that for four years. I’d like to see a more robust plan to improve the Affordable Care Act, and go towards more affordable healthcare. And locally, helping student loan debt — in Black America that has been an issue for us.”