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Why New Swing State Of Virginia May Determine Presidency

Jul 13, 2012
Originally published on July 13, 2012 5:30 pm

Yes, Virginia, you are this election year's Santa Claus.

And it could be your bag of 13 presidential electoral votes that will be the key to deciding who occupies the White House in January.

Proof of Virginia's gathering importance?

President Obama is in the midst of a two-day Virginia campaign swing. Republican candidate Mitt Romney dispatched former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to counterattack Friday.

The airwaves are awash in campaign ads, and there's a veritable who-has-more-campaign-offices arms race well under way.

It's a situation that astounds lifelong Virginians like political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"It's really quite amazing that Virginia has become ground zero in a presidential campaign," he told NPR. "It's almost the new Ohio."

"Who," he asks, "could have imagined it?"

Polls show a tight race, with averages giving Obama a slight edge in the state.

When Obama, buoyed by a huge voter turnout in 2008, became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 44 years, it revealed how much the changing demographics of the Old Dominion were remaking its politics. His winning margin in Virginia, 53 percent to 46 percent, was identical to his national numbers.

Though some exuberant Democrats at the time predicted that the Obama win was proof that Virginia was moving more quickly than anyone anticipated from Republican red to Democratic blue, GOP candidates have won every statewide office since.

Analysts view Virginia as crucial to a Romney win; and though they see a path to victory for Obama even if he loses Virginia, it would not bode well for the president to lose a state where the economy ranks among the nation's most robust.

"If he loses Virginia, given its 5.6 percent unemployment rate, it suggests the president will have a tough time winning a second term," Sabato says.

But if Romney doesn't carry Virginia, he says, "it's hard to see him getting to 270."

That's the magic number — the Electoral College votes needed to capture the White House.

With the presidential campaigns' intense focus on Virginia, a concurrent dead-heat U.S. Senate battle there between two popular former governors, and an avalanche of money and political ads, we decided to take a look what the ground looks likes just south of the nation's capital.

State Of The Economy

Fueled by government (including military) spending, Virginia's unemployment rate never strayed above 7.3 percent during the economic downturn. It now sits at 5.6 percent. That's among the 10 lowest state rates in the nation.

The national unemployment rate hit 10 percent in 2010; it is now calculated at 8.2 percent.

Bankruptcy filings in Virginia are running below the national average, and housing prices are running above, according to a recent analysis of the state's economy by James Glassman of JPMorgan Chase. Employment is growing "at a respectable pace," Glassman wrote in his June 30 analysis, and "the state's job market is relatively rosy." The state, he said, "has made considerable progress recovering or restoring the jobs it lost in the recession."

That makes Romney's economic argument against Obama more difficult than in other important swing states, like Nevada, for example, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, and the highest foreclosure rate.

"Federal spending, defense spending, the stimulus money — that's why Obama has a good case to make in Virginia," says Sabato, "and why I say if he can't carry Virginia, he's probably not going to win."

Romney's Virginia-tailored message? It was carried to the state by Giuliani: Obama, he told veterans gathered at an event in Virginia Beach, is targeting military cuts that would put "your region of your country right in his crosshairs."

Demographic Download

What's changing in Virginia?

Earlier this year, we spoke with Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer at the liberal Center for American Progress, about the changing face of Virginia, and how that has affected the vote.

Obama won, he said, because the state has more minorities, more white college graduates and an "ongoing and pretty sharp decline in the number of white working class" residents who, in Virginia, are "particularly unfriendly to Democrats."

Obama in 2008 lost white working class voters in Virginia by 34 points, and is not expected to do better this time. He got 80 percent of the minority vote nationwide, Teixeira said, but captured 83 percent of the minority vote in Virginia.

Sabato tells us that minorities now make up about 30 percent of the state's population. If Democrats pick up 80 percent of the minority vote, he said, they can lose the white vote "pretty substantially" and still win.

The demographic changes are most significant in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia. Sabato characterizes the area as the "least like Old Virginia — more like Maryland than it's like North Carolina." A third of the state's voters now reside in Northern Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley, also at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, recently wrote, however, that Northern Virginia is "just one part of the story."

Greater Richmond, which includes the state capital; Hampton Roads, which includes Virginia Beach; and Northern Virginia together form an "urban crescent," Skelley wrote. Collectively, it has two-thirds of the state's population and is "key to victory," especially for Democrats.

"As Barack Obama showed in 2008," Skelley said, "a candidate who wins all three can make the rest of the state's vote irrelevant."

Why Here?

Obama's campaign swing is taking him to Hampton, Virginia Beach, Roanoke, Henrico County outside Richmond, and Northern Virginia.

Those are some of the same places Giuliani is hitting for Romney, and where voters are being bombarded with campaign ads and calls.

Obama won in those areas in 2008, with the exception of Virginia Beach, and quite handily: He took Hampton with nearly 70 percent of the vote, Roanoke City and Northern Virginia's Fairfax County with more than 60 percent, and Henrico with 56 percent. He and GOP presidential candidate John McCain split the vote in Virginia Beach, 49 percent for Obama, 50 percent for McCain.

"The president obviously is trying to maximize his vote among his strongest constituents," Sabato says.

Republicans, he says, can no longer assume that military areas like Virginia Beach, for example, will be in their corner. "The military itself is more diverse than it used to be, and on account of that, it's actually a competitive vote," he said. "It can go either way."

In the Richmond area, once the state's most conservative stronghold, educated suburban whites who are moderate on social issues have changed the calculation. Though not reliable Democratic voters, "they're willing to vote for a Democrat," Sabato says, "in some circumstances."

As Teixeira has said: "This is not your father's Virginia."

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