The Rising Blue Tide
A conservative columnist explains how once-Republican states are switching sides.
Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and founding editor of the Washington Free Beacon, explains “How States Like Virginia Go Blue.”
Virginia, which Continetti and I both call home, was a rock-solid red state not long ago.
John Warner’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1978 was an early sign of the Republican revival in the South. The election of 1993, which brought George Allen to the governor’s mansion, was a preview of the Republican Revolution the following year. In 2000, Allen joined Warner in the Senate.
For the next year, the governor and both U.S. senators were Republicans. Then Mark Warner won the governor’s mansion, then Jim Webb defeated Allen, then Warner replaced Warner (confusing, I know), and except for a brief appearance by Governor Bob McDonnell, Democrats have held all statewide offices since.
The Commonwealth voted Republican in every Presidential election from 1952 to 2004, with the exception of the Goldwater debacle of 1964. It has voted Democrat in the last three elections and will almost surely do so in the next.
Continetti nails the why:
The former capital of the Confederacy is now a hub of highly educated professionals, immigrants, and liberals whose values are contrary to those of an increasingly downscale, religious, and rural GOP. Democrats continue to benefit from the shift in the college-educated population toward progressivism. Not only are Republicans increasingly bereft of a language in which to talk to these voters. They may be incapable of doing so. The two sides occupy different realities.
Over the last 29 years, Virginia has become wealthier, more diverse, and more crowded. The population has grown by 42 percent, from 6 million in 1990 to 8.5 million. Population density has increased by 38 percent, from 156 people per square mile to 215. Mean travel time to work has increased from 24 minutes to 28 minutes. The median home price (in 2018 dollars) has gone from $169,000 to $256,000. Density equals Democrats.
The number of Virginians born overseas has skyrocketed from 5 percent to 12 percent. The Hispanic population has gone from 3 percent to 10 percent. The Asian community has grown from 2 percent to 7 percent. In 1990, 7 percent of people 5 years and older spoke a language other than English at home. In 2018 the number was 16 percent.
If educational attainment is a proxy for class, Virginia has undergone bourgeoisification. The number of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher has shot up from 25 percent of the state to 38 percent. As baccalaureates multiplied, they swapped partisan affiliation. Many of the Yuppies of the 80s, Bobos of the 90s, and Security Moms of the ’00s now march in the Resistance.
Nationwide, “In 1994, 39 percent of those with a four-year college degree (no postgraduate experience) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party and 54 percent associated with the Republican Party,” according to the Pew Research Center. “In 2017, those figures were exactly reversed.” Last year, college graduates favored Senator Kaine over challenger Cory Stewart by 20 points.
All of these developments are more pronounced in the most important part of the state: northern Virginia. Fairfax County has grown from 800,000 people to 1.1 million. The percentage of foreign-born residents has gone from 16 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2018. The number of Hispanics has more than doubled from 6 percent to 16 percent. The number of Asians has almost tripled from 8 percent to 20 percent.
I’ve lived in Fairfax County for the past fifteen years and adjacent Loudoun County the three years before that. We were the harbingers of the shift:
Slightly less than half of Fairfax County residents held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1990. Now that number is 61 percent. The median home price has gone from $225,000 to $535,000. In 1992, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot won a combined 58 percent in Fairfax. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 64 percent of the vote.
When I was growing up, Loudoun County was considered a rural area disconnected from the rhythms of the Beltway. In the years since, its population has exploded from 86,000 people to 407,000. The percentage of foreign-born residents has gone from 6 percent to 24 percent. A county population that was 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian is 14 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian. The percentage of the county with a bachelor’s degree or higher has gone from 33 percent to 60 percent. Loudoun is the richest county in America. Fairfax is second. In 1992, Bill Clinton won 35 percent of the vote in Loudoun County. Twenty-four years later, his wife won 55 percent.
As Virginia has moved into the Democratic column, the state Republican Party has become more populist, more nationalist, and more culturally conservative. The dwindling number of Republicans who spoke the language of suburbia could not escape their party’s national reputation for hostility to immigrants and opposition to progressive ideals. A similar process occurred in states like California, Colorado, and Nevada. It may also be underway in Arizona and Texas (!).
Continetti, who I gather is still a Republican but an anti-Trumper, sees non-college whites as “Trump’s Reserve Army” and laments the political contradictions of progressivism (namely, that the policies Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others are proposing for the country are bankrupting states and localities).
While I share Continetti’s belief that the Republican Party shows no signs of turning around any time soon, I don’t see that it has much choice in the longer run. Trump could win re-election by riling up the base and leveraging the rural advantage fo the Electoral College. But that’s a strategy that requires everything to go right and won’t be replicable for many more cycles; the old white guys are dying off and will soon be outnumbered.
Further, the “values” differential isn’t fixed in stone. Gay marriage was a sure-fire red meat issue just a decade ago. Putting a “one man, one woman” initiative on the ballot almost anywhere in the country was guaranteed to increase Republican turnout. Now, it’s just a fact of life and most people under, say, 60 have gotten used to it.
As it often is, California was the national leader in the trend Continetti identifies. In my youth, the GOP was said to have a “lock” on the Electoral College, partly because it almost always won California. It voted red in every Presidential election from 1952 to 1988–again, with the exception of 1964. It’s now voted blue—usually overwhelmingly—the last seven times.
The reason, as Christopher Caldwell explained in a 1998 piece for the Atlantic Monthly, is that the Republican party has put all its eggs in the Southern basket, not realizing how radically the country as a whole has changed. That trend, obviously, has gotten worse rather than better in the 21 years since.
Because the way we elect Presidents and Senators has a heavy rural bias, the GOP has won often enough to convince itself that it has a winning strategy. The fact that it has won the popular vote for President just one time since California turned blue has been disguised by nonetheless winning the White House three times during that span.
But while there are multiple instances of states like California and Virginia turning solidly blue over the last thirty years, there are none of the opposite trend. Eventually, the GOP will be forced to evolve or die. But it’s unlikely to happen soon. Not when they can win the biggest prize with some regularity under the current strategy.