America’s changing demographics and evolving culture has changed presidential politics. No longer are states like Michigan and Wisconsin solidly Democratic. Likewise states like Virginia and North Carolina are no longer solidly Republican. In the future this will force campaigns to make decisions never made before in presidential politics.
For this post (Virginia) and the following article (North Carolina) I want to focus on two of the newest battleground states, formerly GOP strongholds, Virginia and North Carolina. Both share many similarities. They have emerging battleground suburbs, large rural pockets of conservatism and a culture that is rapidly evolving on a whole host of issues.
Until 2008 Virginia had not voted Democratic for president since 1964. That year Lyndon Johnson won almost everywhere against libertarian GOP candidate Barry Goldwater. But in subsequent elections the state stuck with multiple GOP presidential candidates. Even in 1996 the state stuck with Bob Dole and by a fairly substantial margin. That was then. This is now. The state has rapidly evolved.
The growth of the Northern suburbs combined with an influx of Democratic friendly immigrants has made the state competitive. A significant chunk of the state’s population now lives in the Northern suburbs and for the GOP to take the state back this November they need to at least remain competitive in the region. This is not to say this region is reliably Democratic.
In 2008 the North only made up 26% of the electorate. But that number is deceiving. Virginia’s suburbs extend beyond just the North and into the East. Obama easily won the North of the state 64%-35% but narrowly lost the East 50%-48%. The East in 2008 made up a larger slice of the electorate (37%) but was far more competitive that year. The solidly GOP Southwest of the state backed McCain by 59%-40% but made up its smallest share of the electorate (17%) in history.
Fast forward to the 2009 gubernatorial race and the results were vastly different. The electorate was far more conservative and whiter. In 2008 only 70% of the electorate was white and they backed McCain by 21 points. But in 2009 78% of the populace was white and only 22% were minorities (mirrors the 2010 midterms electorate perfectly). Even more McDonnell, the GOP nominee, beat Democrat Creigh Deeds among these voters by a whopping 67%-32% margin. McDonnell dominated among males 62%-37% and even managed to win women 54%-46%.
McDonnell’s winning margins by region is also significant. The only area in the state McDonnell lost was the DC suburbs 54%-46%. But this was a smaller share of the electorate (18%) than 2008. McDonnell ran away with GOP leaning DC exurbs (14%) 36%-63%, the Richmond area (26%) 58%-41%, Central and Western VA (23%) 66%-34% and the Tidewater region (18%) 54%-46%. McDonnell racked up huge margins among all age groups and education levels as well. By comparison in 2008 McCain lose both voters with and without college degrees.
It is likely that the electorate of 2012 will more closely resemble 2008. More minorities and African-Americans are certain to come out and cast ballots. That presents a dilemma for both Mitt Romney and former Governor and Senate candidate George Allen. Both have followed the 2009 McDonnell playbook. They have largely avoided social issues and immigration and remained ardent fiscal hawks. But the electorate may not be receptive to either.
Virginia’s population growth is largely consolidated in two areas, the DC suburbs and DC exurbs. In a year like 2009 the GOP got the better of the results but in 2008 Democrats most assuredly did and we saw the statewide results for both. This means Romney and Allen have to at least be competitive in the region. Neither can afford to let Obama or Kaine, the Democratic former Governor and Senate candidate, to run up the margins in the region.
But courting these new voters is not as easy for Republicans as Democrats. The DC suburbs, and to a lesser extent the DC exurbs, are full of government employees and minorities. Neither has been receptive to the GOP in recent memory. This means Romney and Allen must walk a delicate tightrope. They must energize GOP turnout in Central and Western Virginia while holding down the margins in the DC suburbs. They also must rack up a big victory in the DC exurbs and remain competitive in the East/Richmond area of the state.
Holding down the left’s victory in the DC suburbs relies on winning big among independents. In 2009 McDonnell won 66% of independent votes and they made up 30% of the electorate. In 2008 Obama won independents 49%-48% and they made up 27% of the electorate. That year Democrats were buoyed by an electorate that was 39% Democratic and only 33% Republican as opposed to the 2009 electorate of 37% Republican and 33% Democrat.
Maximizing turnout in heavily GOP regions means the electorate must be more conservative than 2008 for Romney and Allen to win. In 2008 the electorate was only 33% conservative as opposed to 21% liberal and 46% moderate. In 2009 the electorate was 40% conservative to 42% moderate and 18% liberal. McDonnell even ran strongly among moderates and won moderate independents. If Romney and Allen repeat McDonnell’s feat conservative turnout might not matter.
But it is unlikely the electorate will be 40% conservative in 2012. It will be browner. This does not mean Romney and Allen cannot win. Certainly both Romney and Allen are attractive candidates with business and political experience. But demographic trends in the state favor Democrats. An electorate that is only 70% or less white would be hard for the GOP to win. An electorate that is 78% white would be hard for Obama to win in. Turnout will be crucial in this key battleground state that has long evolved from its Southern GOP roots.