The Key To Winning Virginia Could Be The Key To Winning The Election

All eyes on Northern Virginia.

Much as they were in 2008, the nation’s eyes are on the Commonwealth of Virginia as we get closer to Election Day. A reliably Republican state in Presidential elections since 1968, Virginia was one of the first states to reflect the wave that ended up electing Barack Obama to the Presidency four years ago. One of the keys to Obama’s victory in the Old Dominion was the fact that Obama did exceptionally well in the Northern Virginia suburbs, home to one of the largest segments of the state’s population. Part of the area, specifically Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, had been reliably Democratic since at least the 1990s,  but the growing suburban areas of the region in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun Counties remained reliably Republican during those years for the most part.

Below the Presidential level, there were already signs that change was coming, especially in Fairfax where Democrats had been doing very well in state and local elections for some time, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the GOP hold on these “ex-urb” counties was broken. That year, the President won Fairfax County by over 100,000 votes, he won Prince William County by nearly 30,000 votes, and he won Loudoun County by more than 10,000 votes.  The importance of Northern Virginia to the 2008 Obama Campaign can be seen in the fact that he held the very last rally of the campaign in Prince William County, drawing a crowd of tens of thousands of people. As for this year, both the President and Mitt Romney, and their running mates, have been to the area several times already and will likely be returning one or more times before November 6th because it’s looking like Northern Virginia could be the place where this election is decided:

“Old Virginny” may indeed be dead, but what replaces it is still an open question. Mitt Romney is running even with Obama (the RCP Average shows the race tied) and the breeze appears to be in Democrats’ faces instead of at their backs, particularly as recent polls show a narrowing nationwide gender gap. The Obama camp raised eyebrows this week when it insisted Virginia remains part of its electoral calculus.

A large part of that calculus involves building upon Obama’s prior success in Northern Virginia. But doing so is no sure bet. Both candidates are looking for comfort in that region, where a handful of rapidly growing, diverse — and fickle — counties outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway could determine the race’s outcome in the state.

As the Election Day clock ticks down, both men campaigned in the region this week: Romney came to Leesburg on Wednesday after a stop in Chesapeake, and Obama is holding a rally in Fairfax on Friday at George Mason University, one of the largest and most diverse colleges in the commonwealth and a site the president visited just two weeks ago.

Virginia’s 13 electoral votes hold different value for the two contenders: The votes are considered critical for Romney and a something of a treat for Obama. But both are trying to acquire them via the northern tier, particularly Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Kaine won them in 2006; Obama prevailed there in 2008; but McDonnell carried them in 2009.

Virginia’s old vs. new sensibilities are perhaps best encapsulated in these counties. They are a mixture of rural and urban — traditional rural whites who identify with the South, and newcomers (many of them young) lured by high-tech or government jobs (Democratic Reps. Jim Moran of Arlington and Gerry Connolly of Fairfax are both from the Boston area). The region also has sizable and growing Asian and Latino immigrant populations, diverse constituencies that could help determine such a closely contested race.

“It used to be, 15 years ago, [Republicans] could run up big margins in the Shenandoah Valley and in southwest, and get killed in Northern Virginia and still win by several points,” said Phil Cox, who managed McDonnell’s gubernatorial bid and now serves as executive director for the Republican Governors Association, which McDonnell chairs. “Virginia has more in common with a Northeastern state than it does with Alabama. . . . Classic suburban swing voters will decide election.” Those can be found in Richmond and Hampton Roads, of course, which are also campaign hot spots. But the Northern Virginia counties are especially precious, as they hold about a third of the state’s population.

McDonnell made some history of his own three years ago, winning by 18 points and becoming the first statewide Republican to win the trio of northern swing counties in decades. “But it’s a different electorate this year,” said Cox. “We had about 24 percent turnout. In a presidential year, it’s going to be closer to 70, so you’ve got to factor that in.” Still, Northern Virginia is key. And the region, which buoyed Obama to success four years ago, is up for grabs.

Romney is adopting McDonnell’s campaign model and infrastructure. His senior adviser, Ed Gillespie, chaired McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign and knows his home state well. Republican campaign operatives in Virginia insist their ground game and voter turnout efforts are unprecedented for the GOP. Romney is homing in on local concerns such as national security, transportation and sequestration defense cuts that threaten nearly 200,000 jobs in Virginia.

Many Republicans, both inside Virginia and elsewhere, were heartened by the election results subsequent to 2009 when Republicans had three successful years in a row. 2009 in particular  was remarkable because, as noted, Bob McDonnell managed to actually win the three big Northern Virginia counties, something which had become a bit of a rarity for statewide races outside of the Presidency or Senate. However, McDonnell benefited from the fact that he had lived in the region for a large part of his life before moving to the Virginia Beach area, and was quite well known here even before he began running for statewide office in 2005.  It’s also worth pointing out that voter turnout in the 2009 Gubernatorial Election was significantly lower than turning in the 2008 election, to the tune of some 1.8 million voters. So, trying to draw conclusions about 2012 from what happened in 2009 may not be entirely appropriate. Voter Turnout here in Virginia might not reach the 3.7 million who came to the polls four years ago, but it will certainly be higher than the number that came to the polls in 2009. That is likely to work to Obama’s benefit, especially here in Northern Virginia.

Part of the reason that Obama did so well in Northern Virginia four years ago was because he attracted the votes of suburban women, and he seems poised to do that here again too. But, there’s a lot more going on in Northern Virginia that may make things difficult for Romney:

Political observers say women are a critical constituency, but the campaigns also need to appeal to the changing demographics in the area. “A lot of people are moving to North Virginia for job opportunities . . . so you’re looking at a number of people who don’t have fixed partisan loyalties,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Many of these newcomers, he notes, come not only from various parts of the country but also from different parts of the world. In Prince William, for example, which swung for Obama after backing George W. Bush in 2004, 20 percent are Hispanic, according to 2010 census data, a number that doubled over the past decade. Over 20 percent are African-American, and roughly 9 percent are Asian-American, a number also on the rise in recent years. Fairfax has seen a similar boom.

Some of McDonnell’s success in 2009, for example, was built upon inroads made with the Asian-American community, appealing to small business owners especially in Fairfax. Romney hopes to duplicate that success, and has prioritized Asian-American outreach as a way to make up for his challenges with Latino and African-American voters. He highlighted that constituency at a Fairfax rally in September. “You have to go where the swing voters are,” said Farnsworth. “And when you’re looking at maybe 5 percent of the electorate not having made up their minds, focusing on Asian-Americans, focusing on new arrivals, makes a lot of sense.”

Linh Hoang, a Fairfax resident and an Obama campaign volunteer, said the campaign has focused its Asian-American outreach on person-to-person, same-language contacts, touting small business tax cuts and immigration reform. “We know the Asian community is the ultimate swing vote here in Northern Virginia,” said Hong, who owns a consulting company and immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the 1990s. “We are very realistic about the situation [in Virginia]. We knew from the very beginning it was going to be a close race . . . but we know the right formula for making this election work for the president.”

For each candidate, carrying the Northern Virginia counties doesn’t guarantee victory in the commonwealth. But for Romney, swinging some of these counties his way could prove pivotal. For Obama, winning there would supplement the African-American support he expects in Hampton Roads and Richmond and thus provide him a cushion.

Or, it could turn out that Northern Virginia ends up being the region that decides who the next President of the United States will be.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The Key To Winning Virginia Could Be The Key To Winning The Election

    Isn’t this sort of like saying the team which has the most yards, the fewest turnovers, and the most points when the clock strikes 0.00, will win the game?

    Everyone knows the election will revolve around demographics and turnout. Shit, even the loopiest elements of the chattering classes have clued in to that fact.

    Blacks are going to vote for Obama. College kids are going to vote for Obama. Single women are going to vote for Obama. Latinos will vote for Obama. We know that. The issue is whether the Obama identity groups turn out in greater numbers than their opposites. The local economy in large part will determine that. But again that’s at the sky-is-blue level of obviousness.

    In any event, VA should be interesting. Only 8 years ago W. Bush won that state by 8.20 points. Only 4 years ago Obama won that state by 6.30 points. Something’s got to give.

  2. legion says:

    Apparently, the key to winning in Virginia is having your operatives throw the opposing party’s voter registrations in the garbage. Stay classy, GOP.

  3. Barfour says:

    Doug, I read a comment on a website that said that Tim Kaine could have an influence on who wins the Presidential contest in Virginia. If he wins the senate race by 5-6 points, he will help put Obama over the edge in the. Is there any truth to that?

  4. @legion:

    The guy was arrested. And, it still hasn’t been established that those Registration Forms had actually been completed by anyone.

  5. @Barfour:

    I actually think it’s the other way around. The Kaine-Allen race has been very close for months now, even closer than the Presidential race here . In the end, I think whichever candidate wins Virginia on the Presidential side will end up dragging the Senate candidate from their party across the finish line.

  6. David M says:

    Given that Ohio was actually closer than Virgina last time, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Romney to win FL and OH while still losing the election.

  7. legion says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Well, I haven’t seen an official police form, and of course, he hasn’t had his day in court yet, but “completed voter forms” is the phrase used to describe the charges…

    The Pennsylvania man arrested in Virginia on Thursday for allegedly throwing completed voter registration forms into a dumpster was released overnight on a $3,000 bond and scheduled to be back in court the day before the election.

    On Monday, a manager of a retail store in Harrisonburg, Va. allegedly spotted a man throwing a bag containing eight completed voter registration forms into a dumpster before driving off in a black car with Pennsylvania licenses plates.

    Additionally, this yahoo was contracted through Pinpoint, the same firm that is now under criminal investigation in Florida, also for voter registration shenanigans by its employees.

  8. Legion,

    I haven’t seen anything other than a few online reports to be honest.

  9. Raoul says:

    So what you are saying throwing blank registrations forms is a crime /snark.

  10. Jr says:

    The Key to winning Virginia could be the key to winning the election.

    No, Doug.

    All roads lead to Ohio.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Doug has Romnesia.
    The good news is that Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions.

  12. Jc says:

    Virginia is a good barometer for the President. He carried it solely on the turnout of voters who normally were not enthusiastic every election voters. I feel he has lost many of them though, but if even say 3 out of every 5 of those same voters does get out there again, then I think he has a shot in VA. In comes down to, are people supportive enough of the President to wait in those long lines and be late for work or miss dinner, or are they content with just thinking others will get the job done.

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The guy was arrested.

    Yeah, he was arrested. He was arrested because he committed a crime. And he was arrested because a citizen saw him, not because the GOP turned him in.

  14. KariQ says:

    If Romney loses Virginia, he definitely loses the election. If Obama loses Virginia, he can still win comfortably. It’s an important state, but Ohio will be more critical to both campaigns.

  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Isn’t this sort of like saying the team which has the most yards, the fewest turnovers, and the most points when the clock strikes 0.00, will win the game?

    Let me see how I can put this delicately.


    All you do is write “one the one hand, on the other hand” then pat yourself on the back for your intelligence. You even did it in this exact post in which you criticize someone for using your MO!

    You are, quite literally, the least original commenter on this site. Yet somehow you manage to still be the most grating. That’s quite a feat.

  16. legion says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Oh, I don’t know about “most grating”… I’ve kinda gotten used to his running gag of “well, I’ve never heard of [incredibly well-known person central to the OP topic], but here’s my completely uninformed opinion…”

    I’m thinking of making a print run of “Tsar Nicholas doesn’t know me!” t-shirts…

  17. Anderson says:

    I think the real key to VA is winning the Honey Boo Boo endorsement.

  18. @Neil Hudelson: Most grating? That’s quite a contest, but I concur with your general assessment. It is why I usually skim past his comments.

  19. Barry says:

    @Neil Hudelson: “You are, quite literally, the least original commenter on this site. Yet somehow you manage to still be the most grating. That’s quite a feat.”

    I disagree. Superdestroyer,with ‘OMG THE NI@@@@RZ AND SP&CS R GONNA KILL US PURE, VIRGINAL WHITE PEOPLE!!!!!’ has unoriginality nailed down.

  20. Me Me Me says:

    I’m surprised that you talk about the race in Virginia without mentioning Virgil Goode. He’s going to cost Romney big time in the southern part of the state.

  21. Neil Hudelson says:


    I stand corrected. Since superdestroyer just copies and pastes the same response over and over I stopped paying attention to him to the point I had forgotten he existed.

    Tsar manages to come up with a fresh comment while still saying absolutely nothing at all every single post. It’s actually impressive in a twisted way.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Yes, let’s not forget Virgil Goode. Doug, have you managed to dig up any information on how he’s doing?

  23. bill says:

    maybe the UN will have some observers there, just in case:

  24. superdestroyer says:


    I find it odd that progressives who make exactly the same post of “Democrats good, Republicans bad” would accuse anyone else of being unoriginal.

    The least that progressives could do is agree that no matter what policy the government adopts, there will be winners and losers and the discussion should be about that. However, most progressives like to pretend that there really is a free lunch and that Republicans are just denying them their free stuff.