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The polls are open in Georgia: Here's what to watch

It’s finally here. The grueling, bruising presidential campaign between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton ends Tuesday, and an exhausted electorate will decide their fates.

More than 2.3 million people have already cast ballots in Georgia, and millions more will head to the polls. As the nastiest presidential race in our lifetime comes clattering to an end, polls show Clinton clinging to an advantage in the national electoral picture.

The most realistic route in Trump’s narrow path to victory requires him to win Florida, North Carolina and Ohio – plus flip one or more of several states that have voted reliably Democratic in most recent elections: Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But all those models rely on him holding Georgia, which has voted only once for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election bid in 1980.

Polls show a tight race in Georgia despite both campaigns largely bypassing the state — Clinton hasn’t visited Georgia since February, while Trump’s last trip was this summer — but this volatile presidential cycle has already produced plenty of other surprises.

The vote at the top of the ticket will set the tone for the rest of the ballot, which is chock-full of competitive contests. At stake are Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s bid for a third term, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education ballot initiative, several state legislative seats and scores of local races.

Here are five key factors in Georgia’s race to watch:

Will Republicans rally around Trump’s flag?

The #NeverTrump movement hasn’t fizzled out, but it appears to have waned as the election nears and even some of Trump’s most outspoken GOP skeptics are circling the wagons. Public polls show a vast majority of Georgia Republicans, about 80 percent to 90 percent, are now siding with the nominee.

Consider the case of Will Carter, a delegate to the Republican National Convention who has swung between supporting and opposing Trump throughout the year. On the eve of the election, he said, he’s siding with the man he called the “lesser of two evils.”

“Maybe America needs a new face or someone who has been on the outside,” Carter said. “Donald Trump may not be the right man for the job, but he surely is the best man for the job given the circumstances.”

That kind of thinking has hurt Libertarian Gary Johnson, who made his first campaign stop in Georgia last week. His poll numbers have been nearly halved in the past three weeks, plummeting from double digits to about 5 percent in several recent polls.

The last time a Democrat won Georgia was in 1992, and Bill Clinton’s victory was in part thanks to third-party candidate Ross Perot’s strong support. The higher Johnson polls — many analysts see 6 percent as the threshold — the more likely the race between Clinton and Trump in Georgia turns into a nail-biter.

More: Inside the Georgia GOP struggle over Trump

Red, blue and purple strongholds:

To have any chance of flipping Georgia, Democrats need a huge turnout in vote-rich Chatham, Clayton, Fulton and Muscogee counties. But no county is as important to the party as DeKalb, a majority-black county that is the party’s beating heart in Georgia.

A record number of DeKalb residents have registered to vote this election — nearly 520,000 — and a record 193,000-plus have already cast ballots. Michael Thurmond, a former DeKalb school superintendent running to be the county’s chief executive, said the early voting signs portend well for Clinton.

“We’ve been through a lot. There’s been a tremendous amount of negativity. But this tells me that voters in DeKalb are optimistic and seeking a new direction for the county,” he said. “This is significant — it’s huge.”

Republicans aim to run up the score in conservative bastions, including Columbia and Hall counties, and the GOP-friendly suburbs ringing northern Atlanta. Cobb, in particular, will test the Republican ground game. For Bill Hatley, a volunteer at the Cobb GOP’s office on Sunday, it’s a tremendous responsibility.

“He has to drive up a good margin in Cobb to win,” said Hatley, a Marietta retiree. “We are a pace-setter for the state, and we don’t take that lightly.”

Then there are the counties caught in between the blue and red tides. Democrats hope to flip Henry, home to a surging black population, while Republicans aim to hold Gwinnett, where whites no longer make up a majority of registered voters.

More: Swing Districts: A purply stew in Middle Georgia

A gaping gender gap

The same question that dogs Trump’s campaign nationwide could also hamper him here: How big will the gender gap be?

Trump has built his lead in Georgia polls thanks to a hefty advantage among men. But the New York businessman trailed Clinton among women 48 percent to 37 percent in the final Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which mirrored other more recent surveys showing a sizable divide.

Women outnumber men as registered voters in Georgia and hold an advantage over men in each of the state’s 159 counties. And some voters say they’re still haunted by his claims of groping women and a string of sexual assault accusations that he’s denied.

Trump’s forces hope they can build an insurmountable lead among men, though Clinton supporters point to signs of lagging support for the Republican in suburban counties. And some longtime Republican activists see some ominous signs brewing for Trump.

Tricia Pridemore, a veteran GOP activist who is writing in third-party candidate Evan McMullin, said many of her Republican friends are torn.

“I have friends voting for Hillary, for Trump, for Johnson, for McMullin,” she said. “We used to be able to reliably discuss who we were all supporting. But not at all this time.”

More: Hillary Clinton trails Donald Trump in Georgia, but leads with women

A racial split

A few months ago, Georgia GOP minority engagement guru Leo Smith turned heads when he predicted Trump could reach one-fifth of the black vote.

That seems like the longest of long shots now, with Trump hovering around the margin of error — just a few percentage points — in Georgia polls of African-American voters.

The bigger question is the level of black turnout. Early voting data show that African-American voters did not cast ballots at the same pace they did in 2012 during President Barack Obama’s quest for a second term, though Democrats warn not to read too much into those figures.

Republicans say they’re in for a good night if overall turnout from black voters falls beneath 30 percent. Democrats say they’re seeing a late burst of enthusiasm from African-American Democrats, particularly in densely populated urban areas.

“African-American voters, like other voters of color, soundly reject the Trump narrative and candidacy,” House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to cut into Trump’s gaping lead among white Georgians. White voter registration sank below 57 percent for the first time this year, though the voting bloc still remains by far the most formidable in the state.

That’s good news for Trump. The AJC poll showed only about one-fifth of white voters back Clinton, but Democrats are hoping to edge that figure up at least 6 percentage points.

More: Most Georgians want race to be a top issue in presidential race

First-time voters

Then there’s the chance that the polls here and elsewhere are all hopelessly wrong, thanks to a tide of newcomers and first-time voters who didn’t show up on any calling lists and are hard to account for in polling models.

“We’re not getting a lot of the mainstream American voters and people are lying to the pollsters,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican who represents a stretch of northwest Atlanta. “People don’t trust the government and they don’t trust anyone talking politics. I don’t think the polls are as accurate as we think they are.”

On the other side of the aisle, a surge of Latino voters casting ballots for the first time could give Clinton’s campaign a boost. Hispanics make up only about 2 percent of Georgia’s electorate, but historic turnout in a tight race could make it too close for comfort for Republicans.

It all makes the race as volatile, and unpredictable, as ever.

More: Minority voter registration surges in Georgia

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.