Virginia becomes key political battleground

Ryan Murphy
News Editor

The appearance of presidential candidates, including third-party contenders, in Virginia over the last few months has become somewhat of a common occurrence. Hardly a week has gone by without a visit from, at minimum, a running mate or spouse.

The campaigns spending so much time touring the commonwealth means they aren’t spending time in other, possibly larger states, which speaks to something that is historically uncommon: Virginia’s importance in the upcoming election.

John Aughenbaugh, an instructor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, says Virginia is important because it is a hotly-contested battleground state. A battleground state is one in which voters are so evenly divided between Democratic and Republican candidates that elections could go in either direction. Virginia has only recently earned the label.

Illustration by Sagal Hassan

Virginia was once a Republican stronghold that received little attention on Election Day. Since the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson, Virginia hadn’t voted for a Democratic president until 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama won Virginia with a margin of more than 234,000 votes.

At President Obama’s Oct. 25 appearance in Richmond, former Virginia governor and current senatorial candidate Tim Kaine asked the crowd to think back to a time when presidential hopefuls didn’t visit the commonwealth.

“Republican candidates, they didn’t need to come to Virginia. Democratic candidates, they said ‘Why bother coming to Virginia?’ ” Kaine said to the crowd of about 15,000. “President Obama changed that in 2008 and he’s changed it so that now everyone who’s running for president of any party has got to come, because Virginians are important.”

At the same event, U.S. Representative Bobby Scott from Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District pointed to CNN’s coverage of the 2008 presidential race as evidence of Virginia’s rise to national prominence.

“Four years ago the experts said that if we vote for Barack Obama he would be elected President of the United States,” Scott said. “Because you voted, at 10:58 on election night, CNN announced that Barack Obama had carried Virginia and two minutes later they came back and said Barack Obama was president-elect of the United States of America. Your votes made a difference.”

Four years after Virginia earned the battleground state moniker, the struggle between parties rages on in the commonwealth. Campaigns and political action committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get messages to voters over America’s airwaves and sway voters in other states like Virginia to one side or the other.

“In the last 12 days of a campaign, you have to decide how you want to spend your resources and because Virginia is that competitive, you’re seeing them spend a heck of a lot of money and devote a lot of resources to Virginia,” Aughenbaugh said.

The former red state didn’t turn purple overnight. Experts point to population and demographic shifts as reasons why Virginia has become a battleground state.

“As Northern Virginia began to explode in terms of population, many of those new voters tended to vote democratic and that’s what put Virginia in play,” Aughenbaugh said.

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that Northern Virginia’s growth between 2000 and 2010 has made the area a major factor in elections.

“(Northern Virginia is) now the most populous area in the state and the most Democratic because it’s relatively diverse and because much of its growth has come from people moving there from other areas (and) often places that are more politically liberal,” Skelley said.

Increasing populations of minority voters throughout the Commonwealth also contributed to Obama’s success here in 2008.

“Small but steadily growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations combined with a fairly large African-American population have made Virginia more diverse and those groups generally lean or are strongly Democratic,” he said, adding that Obama won 80 percent of the non-white vote nationally in the 2008 election.

Diversity alone isn’t enough to account for the new attention on Virginia during election times. Consider the potential payoff: a win in Virginia means 13 electoral votes, one of the larger tallies among those states generally considered battleground states. 270 total electoral votes are required to take the presidency.
Skelley and Aughenbaugh agreed that Ohio is more likely to decide the election. The state has five more electoral votes than Virginia and has historically been a good predictor of the presidency. Ohio has gone to the candidate who would win the election in each of the last 12 presidential races.

“Still, Virginia remains a key state in the electoral math,” Skelley said. “An Obama win in Virginia would likely signal his re-election. Romney needs to win the state to have a shot at winning the election.”

National polls continue to report a dead heat between the Democratic incumbent and his Republican challenger. An ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll released on Nov. 2 indicated Romney had a one point lead nationwide. In Virginia, Obama lead by a narrow 0.9 percentage points.

With the election so far up in the air, even the experts couldn’t say who would take Virginia. Aughenbaugh indicated that turnout in Northern Virginia was key for Obama. If the president’s campaign can mobilize as many voters there as it did in 2008, he said, Virginia would go Democratic. Skelley, who also works with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a group known for predicting elections, foresees a different result.

“If I had to hazard a guess on Virginia, I would say Romney might very narrowly carry the state on Nov. 6,” Skelley said. “Still, the race in the Old Dominion is extremely close and will be one to watch on election night.”

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