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Georgia is hosting the 1st presidential debate. Its voters could decide the election

A stack of stickers sits atop a ballot scanner during the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tucker, Georgia. In 2024, Georgia is poised to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the presidential election.
Ben Gray
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FR171789 AP
A stack of stickers sits atop a ballot scanner during the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tucker, Georgia. In 2024, Georgia is poised to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the presidential election.

Just under 12,000 votes separated Joe Biden and Donald Trump when they last appeared on the ballot in Georgia. Four years later, the rivals are preparing to share a debate stage this week in Atlanta as they fight for the slice of Georgia voters who could swing the presidential election.

Some of those voters with outsize influence live in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta where new subdivisions keep sprouting and have helped turn this formerly Republican stronghold purple. Reading a novel on a lounge chair in the sun at Alpharetta’s Wills Park Pool, Kerry Webster is the kind of voter Biden and Trump need to persuade.

Webster says she is unhappy with her choices for president. And though she voted for Trump in 2020, he has since been convicted on 34 felony counts and faces more charges, including in Georgia.

A grand jury indicted Trump just a few miles from the debate stage on charges that he attempted to overturn Georgia's 2020 presidential election result.

"He's a conniver. He's not really a good person — he's really not," Webster said. "But the economy was better, and Biden, I don't know if he does a lot for us, hate to say."

But Webster does not plan to watch Thursday's debate. Despite living in a state and a suburban community that helped decide the presidency in 2020, she says she feels unmotivated about her options and has wondered whether her vote matters much anyway.

The Wills Park Pool in Alpharetta, Ga., has given families a break from the heat, but with the presidential debate in Georgia on Thursday, voters can't get a break from politics in this pivotal state.
Sam Gringlas / WABE
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WABE
The Wills Park Pool in Alpharetta, Ga., has given families a break from the heat, but with the presidential debate in Georgia on Thursday, voters can't get a break from politics in this pivotal state.

Prasad and Mansi Vichare are keeping an eye on their kids splashing nearby as a DJ bumps Taylor Swift on repeat and older kids leap from a tall diving board for prizes. The Vichares identify as political independents. And though they definitely plan to vote, they think debates are a mostly useless exercise.

"To be honest, they're a waste, but that's just my opinion," Prasad said. "I'm indifferent," added Mansi, who believes the candidates just tell people what they think they want to hear. "I feel like it's somewhat fake, and so I don't know if it's really that helpful."

A few lounge chairs away, Madalyn Ford is concerned that some voters have not internalized the stakes.

Ford says she has voted for both Republicans and Democrats, but never Trump. At 73, she worries about the U.S. that her grandkids will inherit and says she will not miss the debate.

"This is really important for Biden," Ford predicted. "He better get a good night's rest. I don't think he's got dementia, but he's old and this is super-important."

Polls suggest that Biden has gained ground with older voters, particularly women. But support from younger voters of color, who have long been Democrats' bread and butter, appears to be softening.

Millennial Deanna McKay says she has struggled with whether her vote matters. McKay voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. She says she will watch this debate with an open mind.

"Socially Biden, but financially Trump, and that's kind of a tough place to be," she explained. "But it's a little frustrating because these aren't the two candidates I would choose."

McKay says she cares most about affordable housing and reproductive rights. She says she does not directly fault Trump for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, despite his three appointments that cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Field operations take shape as voting nears

This month, the Trump campaign opened its first Georgia field office in a tidy brick building that's 20 miles south of Atlanta and shared with an insurance agency. On a recent weekday, staffers invited supporters to tour the campaign's inaugural field office, grab coffee and doughnuts and sign up to volunteer.

Ben Carson, who was the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development during Donald Trump's administration, speaks at a ceremony to open the Republican presidential candidate's first Georgia campaign office, in Fayetteville, on June 13.
Jeff Amy / AP
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AP
Ben Carson, who was the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development during Donald Trump's administration, speaks at a ceremony to open the Republican presidential candidate's first Georgia campaign office, in Fayetteville, on June 13.

Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development under Trump, traveled to Georgia for the grand opening and described the choice that voters face in November with an analogy.

"Would you rather have the surgeon who has a bad bedside manner but saves everybody, or the one with a very sweet personality who kills everybody?" Carson asked. "Which one would you take?"

The Trump campaign says it now has more than a dozen staffed field offices in the state, though Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, recently raised concerns that the Trump campaign's ground game in Georgia may be lagging.

"This year it will be clearer than ever that Georgians are ready to help send their state's sixteen electoral votes to the GOP column this fall," Henry Scavone, the Republican National Committee's communications director in Georgia, said in a statement.

After Biden managed to flip Georgia blue in 2020, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992, Republicans swept nearly every statewide office in the midterm elections that followed. Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock won reelection that year in a runoff, the one exception.

Democrats still believe Georgia is winnable and see a strong ground game as crucial to notching more wins. Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign says it will hold 200 events in Georgia, looking to leverage the national spotlight and the side-by-side view of the two candidates.

Jonae Wartel, the Biden campaign's senior adviser in Georgia, says deploying a presence statewide, not just in the Democratic stronghold of metro Atlanta, is a key feature of the campaign's Georgia strategy. The campaign says it has 14 Georgia field offices and will hit 100 staffers here by the end of the week.

"Right here in our backyard, the world is going to be watching how President Biden is fit to lead us into another four-year administration and Donald Trump is continuing to be a threat," Wartel says. "That contrast is going to be on full display. It's the campaign's job to take advantage of that."

"I'm very nervous, I’ll be honest"

The Biden campaign opened an Atlanta campaign office with a Juneteenth block party joined by Vice President Harris. <br>
Sam Gringlas / WABE
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WABE
The Biden campaign opened an Atlanta campaign office with a Juneteenth block party joined by Vice President Harris.

Most polls have shown Biden trailing Trump in Georgia. To win the state again, Biden will need to hold together a fragile coalition of diverse suburbanites, disenchanted Republicans and Black voters.

Vice President Harris has traveled to Georgia so often that she says people have started jokingly asking whether she is moving there.

"I said maybe!" she recently joked during a Juneteenth block party to celebrate the opening of a coordinated campaign office in Atlanta.

"We're never going to let anybody take our power from us — we will never let anybody silence us. That's what this election is about," Harris told members of the crowd as they enjoyed barbecue and snow cones. "The people of Georgia are going to make the decision, and the decision will be four more years."

Val Acree attends a Juneteenth block party with Vice President Harris and says she's excited to vote for Harris and President Biden again in 2024.
Sam Gringlas / WABE
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WABE
Val Acree attends a Juneteenth block party with Vice President Harris and says she's excited to vote for Harris and President Biden again in 2024.

Voter Val Acree said she is unabashedly supporting Biden and Harris. Even so, she does have some trepidation about the next few months.

"I'm very nervous, I'll be honest," Acree said. "There's a lot of disinformation and disengagement out there, so I'm doing everything on my part that I can to get people engaged."

That's why Acree says she will be watching when Biden and Trump meet on the debate stage just a few miles away.

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Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.