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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Swing State Review: Virginia

Today we take our Swing State Review to Virginia. Historically, Virginia has not been much of a swing state, instead consistently favoring the Republican Party. The effect has been that the Democrats typically win Virginia when they have already secured 270 Electoral Votes.

The following chart makes this clear by examining the "Republican tilt" of Virginia against the three previous states in our review - Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Virginia Partisanship 1.jpg

Virginia's Republican tilt is apparent. In the last sixty years, only Truman and Johnson have carried the Old Dominion.

So why are the Democrats so bullish? Part of it is probably induced by their overall confidence. George W. Bush's job approval numbers are low, the public favors the generic Democrat over the generic Republican, and all of the "macro forces" of electoral politics seem to favor them. And remember, Republican tilt is a relative term. If the nation votes +10 Democrat, and Virginia votes +5 Democrat - it has a Republican tilt, but the Democrats still get its Electors!

Of course, Democratic confidence has been shaken with Obama's declining poll position. I think deriving one's confidence from summer polls is as silly as staking out the houses of potential vice-presidential candidates. For goodness sake, it's still August! That being said, the particulars of the Obama-McCain match up might disrupt the typical partisan electoral dynamics, producing a closer race than what some experts would otherwise predict.

So, the most fruitful question to ask is whether Obama can win the state in a close election.

Because this query is so similar to the one we asked about Colorado, it makes sense to approach it in a similar manner. Accordingly, let's divide Virginia into metropolitan regions - plus another "odds and ends" rural category. 1

Virginia Partisanship 2.jpg

There seems to be an angle for the Democrats here. From 1968 to 2000, metropolitan Washington favored the Republicans, but not in 2004. Some Democrats see an incipient realignment in the works here. Personally, I have such a hard time predicting one election, I don't know how anybody could predict the next ten! I'll just say that, realignment or not, there is certainly potential for Obama in metropolitan Washington, D.C.

That being said, Republicans have reasons to be cheery as well. All other areas represented in the graph - metro Virginia Beach, metro Richmond, and the rural areas - went for Bush in 2004. Additionally, the GOP has dominated the smaller metropolitan regions, as this graph and this graph make clear. The only exception to this trend is Charlottesville - which, like metro Washington, exhibited a Democratic tilt in 2004.

Comparing Virginia to Colorado, it is fair to say that, all else equal, Colorado is a more promising short-term opportunity for the Democratic Party. Assuming that metro Washington continues to favor the Democrats, the Republican Party is still left with a sizable base to fall back upon. You could have tripled Kerry's margin in metro Washington, and George W. Bush would still have won. That's how well he did in the rest of the state. Whether or not this persists in the medium- or long-term is outside the purview of this essay.2

In the short-term, that makes the state a relatively difficult capture for Obama (so long as we assume that his vice-presidential nominee does not give him a "favorite son" bump). This can be appreciated by examining how previous Democrats have done in statewide contests. The following picture reviews the most populous parts of the state.3

Virginia Democratic Margin of Victory 1.jpg

A close examination of the 2006 Senate contest indicates Obama's challenge in Virginia. Webb pulled an enormous margin out of metropolitan Washington, and yet he eked out the barest of victories - a margin of 9,300 votes out of more than 2 million cast. What tipped the race in Webb's favor? Virginia Beach. While John Kerry lost the area by about 6 points, Webb won it by 3 points.

This could be hard for Obama to mimic - for Webb's greatest strength in the region is one that favors McCain, not Obama: Virginia Beach has an extremely large concentration of military veterans. About 20% of the voting age public are veterans. Webb's military background probably made the difference in Virginia Beach, and thus the whole state. In 2004 John Kerry, himself a veteran, won 36% of the veteran vote in Virginia. Jim Webb won 42%. That difference was large enough to tip the election.

So, Webb's victory depended upon an angle Obama simply doesn't have. Does he have an alternative one? Maybe. One oppportunity manifested itself in the Democratic primary.

Virginia Obama Clinton.jpg

Notice that Obama did very well in metropolitan Washington, a sign that he might be able to improve on Kerry's margins there. He also did well in the south and east - in places like Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Danville. This was due in large measure to his overwhelming support from African Americans, as the following picture indicates.

Virginia African American.jpg

Note the close relationship between the two pictures. This is not a mirage. According to the exit polls, 42% of all Obama voters in Virginia were African American.

This might present a general election opportunity for Obama. Clearly, African Americans in Virginia are strongly behind him. If there is a surge in turnout among African Americans, such that they increase their share of the vote by 5%, and Obama does really well in metro Washington - he might be able to pull off the upset. Holding everything else constant from 2004, adjusting the racial demography of the electorate would cut Bush's margin of victory by about half, from 8 points to 4 points. Toss in a Webb-like performance in metropolitan Washington, and Obama carries the state.

Of course, it is one thing to write this - it is another thing entirely to do it. African Americans in Virginia vote in proportion to their overall population, which means that increasing their share of the vote 5% would be a monumental undertaking.

I'm not saying this is impossible. Frankly, I do not know. I just pulled that "5% increase" out of my you-know-what. If there was a sensible baseline I could use - believe me, I'd use it. But the fact is that there has simply never been a presidential candidate like Barack Obama, which in turn means that it is impossible to estimate what kind of effect his candidacy will have on the racial composition of the electorate.

There is another relevant subject to discuss, one we covered in our reviews of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note Obama's poor margins in the southwestern part of the state. This area voted much like neighboring West Virginia and Kentucky, and nearby southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This is not an incredibly populous part of the state, but there are three important caveats to keep in mind. First, every previous non-voter who votes Democrat this cycle nets Obama one vote, but every typical Democrat who backs McCain nets the Republican two votes. Second, in the best-case scenario for the Obama campaign, the final result in Virginia will be close, something on the order of the 2006 Senate race. Every vote counts in that instance. Third, Obama's poor margin in the southwest indicates that he might have a more general problem among some downstate white voters. We might not be seeing it in the primary results in places like Roanoke, Lynchburg, or Danville because Obama did so well with African Americans. On the other hand, Obama did pretty well in Harrisonburg, which has a relatively small African American population - so it is hard to identify the extent of any potential problem with downstate whites. Ultimately, that's the limitation of countywide analysis - if there is intra-county variation (and there probably is), we can't see it.

I would note that McCain is still picking up a good portion of Clinton voters. My hunch is that these voters are not evenly distributed nationwide, that instead they are clustered in specific areas. I don't know how else to explain why, in a year like this, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia are out of Obama's grasp. Such voters might also be disproportionately concentrated in Virginia - which in turn could yield trouble for him on Election Day.

So, in conclusion, I would say that of the four states we have reviewed thus far, Pennsylvania is the most likely to go for Obama, Virginia the least, and Colorado and Ohio fall in between. It's certainly not impossible for Obama to flip Virginia, but it won't be easy.

Here are five things to watch on Election Day.

(1) Washington. Incipient realignment or not, Obama has a chance to improve on Kerry's numbers in metro Washington. Can he? If so, by how much? He'll need a big haul in northern Virginia to overcome McCain's advantages in other parts of the state.

(2) Virginia Beach. Home to a large number of veterans and African Americans - Virginia Beach plays to Obama and McCain's strengths. Keep an eye on Hampton, which has particularly large veteran and African American populations. In 2004, it went for Kerry by 15 points. If that number changes substantially in either direction, we'll get a sense of what kind of night we're in for.

(3) Richmond. Both Webb and Kaine did better than Kerry in metro Richmond - Kaine, who hails from Richmond, substantially so. If Obama can hold his own among suburban/exurban whites - enhanced African American turnout here might boost his margins and put the state in striking range.

(4) Downstate whites (outside Richmond and Virginia Beach). One reason Jimmy Carter kept Virginia so close in 1976 was his support outside metropolitan Washington. In an inverse of the 2004 results, Ford won metro DC while Carter was very strong in the rural areas and smaller towns like Roanoke, Blacksburg, and Bristol. These days, such voters generally vote Republican - but some still vote Democrat. Will they this cycle?

(5) African Americans. The Obama campaign has promised game-changing African American turnout. In the last two contests, African Americans constituted about 20% of Virginia's presidential vote, proportional to their share of the state's population. If, when the exit polls roll out on Election Night, we find something closer to 25% - expect the state to be very close.


[1] Unfortunately, our rural category for Virginia is even more diverse than the category we etched out for Colorado. These counties include places in the western, mountainous part of the state, as well as coastal counties that are not categorized as being part of Richmond or Virginia Beach. One implication of this is that there is a wide divergence in the racial composition of this "region." On average, African Americans make up about 19% of all people in non-metropolitan counties - but the standard deviation is an eye-popping 17%. Such an odds and ends category is as necessary as it is unfortunate. Breaking this category into subcategories would mean that the number of units to analyze in our review would simply be unmanageable.

[2] One's bet on the future depends upon two items. First, how one chooses to extend those Republican tilt graphs into the future. As I noted, my preference is to wait until I have actual data before I draw them forward. Second, changes in population. Americans' mating habits are easier to predict than their voting habits - so we can get some purchase on this. The following chart tracks the four most populous regions' share of the presidential vote over the last fifty-odd years.

Virginia Share of Statewide Presidential Vote 1.jpg

Metro Washington clearly has been on the rise, a growth that seems to have come largely at the "expense" of the rural areas. One of the advantages the Republicans have in Virginia that they do not possess in Colorado is that in Virginia the principal city, while recently leaning to the Democrats, makes up a smaller proportion of the statewide vote. Denver is leaning to the Democrats like metro Washington, but metro Denver matters more to the electoral politics of Colorado than Washington does to Virginia. That being said, Washington's trend line has a positive slope. So, in the future, we should expect Washington to become more and more important in the partisan results of the state. For those of you who are insanely interested in fine-grained data, as I am, you can check out the population trends in the rest of the state here and here.

[3] See how Kerry, Webb, and Kaine performed in the rest of the state here and here.

-Jay Cost