Battleground Virginia

Battleground Virginia

By Kyle Trygstad - October 23, 2008

After spending years in the shadows of presidential politics, Virginia has become a key electoral cog for both the Democratic and Republican nominees this year. Barack Obama and John McCain have visited Virginia a combined 12 times since June, with both parties spending millions on winning a state that has voted for a Republican in every election since 1968.

"This is a whole new spectacle for Virginia," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "What has typically happened is the presidential campaigns entirely bypass the state."

While Virginia hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1964 -- when all but six states voted for Lyndon B. Johnson -- there have been some close races since then, whether the candidates campaigned there or not.

"It's not true that the last time Virginia was competitive was '64," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Virginia was actually a target state in 1976. It received attention from both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford."

The race that year was extremely close, with Ford edging Carter by just 1 point. And, as Sabato noted, Virginia stuck out as "the only southern state not to vote for Carter."

Another close election occurred in 1996, when Bill Clinton came within 2 points of winning the state. With Reform Party candidate Ross Perot taking 7 percent of the vote, Bob Dole garnered just 47 percent to Clinton's 45 percent. The tight margin came even though neither Dole nor Clinton campaigned in the state that year, Holsworth said.

Despite Virginia's string of Republican victories, Obama has spent a significant amount of time there since securing the nomination in June. He not only has visited the state eight times, his visits have come at significant moments. In June, Obama held the first two rallies of his general election campaign in Virginia -- in Southwest's coal country and in booming Northern Virginia -- and he spent two days in the economically-struggling South Side and near Richmond just before the commencement of the Democratic National Convention. Making two trips to the state late in the campaign -- including stops in Richmond and Northern Virginia yesterday, and in Roanoke last week -- was also significant.

"The fact is Obama has been here for 3 years," Holsworth said. "In 2005 he campaigned for Tim Kaine. In 2006 he barnstormed the state for Jim Webb. And he's been the featured speaker at [Jefferson-Jackson] dinners. He is a well-known figure and he has managed to garner energetic support."

Despite his national campaign headquarters being located in Virginia, McCain has made half as many public trips to the Commonwealth as Obama, including three visits since the Republican National Convention ended in early September. Last week he held rallies in Virginia Beach, home to a large number of military families, and in Prince William County, a Washington, D.C. exurb.

"McCain began this race thinking Virginia would automatically go red. What he realized -- about 10 days ago -- is that the state is going to slip away if he doesn't get here," Holsworth said.

Meanwhile, Obama has been flooding the state with TV ads, especially in Northern Virginia where close to one-third of the state's votes are cast. The number of McCain ads running in the Washington, D.C. media market has noticeably declined. "Apparently they made a resource miscalculation about Virginia," Holsworth said.

So why has Virginia all of a sudden become so competitive that Obama is leading in some polls by double-digits? Part of the reason is Obama's get-out-the-vote efforts, which the campaign has said focused on two groups with traditionally low turnout rates: blacks and young professionals. While Virginia does not register voters by party, county registrars have noted the number of registration forms submitted by the campaign. Media General News Service reported yesterday that, according to the Loudoun County general registrar, the Obama campaign brought in 75 percent of all the registration forms submitted this year.

Another part of the reason for Virginia's competitiveness are the swing voters in the exurban counties of Stafford, Loudoun (where Obama was yesterday), and Prince William (where McCain was last weekend), which form the border of Northern Virginia. They are the "major key" this year, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

"These are economic conservatives, not cultural conservatives. People who moved out to buy a big home and live the American dream, and in exchange for that accepted a long commute back into D.C.," McDonald said. "When Republicans don't do well, this is exactly where they lose."

Pres. Bush won the three counties by a double-digit margin in 2004. Kaine, a Democrat, won them a year later on his way to the governor's mansion. "If Obama matches Kaine's margins in these, I believe he will win," McDonald said.

Virginia's importance in winning the White House this year is best evidenced by McCain continuing to campaign in states John Kerry won in 2004, such as Pennsylvania, where polling has shown Obama to be favored. "The campaign appears to have made the strategic decision that winning Pennsylvania is the only way he can win the presidency if he loses Colorado and Virginia," McDonald said.

With the increasing likelihood of Obama picking up at least two western states among New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, as well as Iowa, McCain's election hopes practically rest on his ability to keep Virginia's 13 electoral votes in the Republican column. When the polls close in the state on Nov. 4, a good indicator for how McCain's night turns out will be who has won Virginia.

"What it boils down to is this," Sabato said. "If McCain is losing Virginia on election night we can all go to bed early."

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Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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