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.