October 24, 2016
Virginia saw many pitched battles during the Civil War, and it’s similarly been a battleground in recent presidential elections. But some observers now believe the Old Dominion is returning to its ancestral political roots and becoming once again reliably Democratic—at least in contests for the White House.
That sentiment is certainly a recent one. Before 2008, the last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Virginia was Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater. And in the 2014, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner faced one of the most competitive Senate races in the mid-term election, narrowly defeating his Republican challenger, Ed Gillespie.
Hillary Clinton will be helped in Virginia with her selection of the state’s other Senator, Tim Kaine, as her running mate. Elected to the Senate in 2012, Kaine was also elected statewide as the state’s governor in 2005 and lieutenant governor in 2001. Before that he was mayor of Richmond for four years.
But the two factors that will really help Clinton in the Old Dominion are the same ones that enabled Obama to carry the state twice—the changing demographics of Northern Virginia and the Democratic tilt of the state’s Tidewater region that includes Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.
The close-in Washington D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia (dominated by Fairfax and Arlington Counties and the city of Alexandria) have been voting Democratic for president for several elections. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry handily won that turf by 57-to-42 percent over George W. Bush. But Bush similarly clobbered Kerry in the exurbs—stretching to the West Virginia border and sprawling south down Rt. 29 towards (but not including) Charlottesville—by 58-to-41 percent. And Bush comfortably carried Virginia, 54-to-45 percent.
But Obama managed not only to boost the Democratic margins in the close-in suburbs—winning that turf with 62 percent of the vote in 2012 and 63 percent in 2008—he also managed to narrowly carry the Northern Virginia exurban frontier by 50 percent in 2012 and 51 percent in 2008.
Close-in suburban Counties like Fairfax and Arlington, and Loudon, just next to Fairfax in the exurbs, are among the wealthiest in the country. That prosperity has created a lot of high-end jobs and attracted college graduates and post-graduates to fill them. And the region has been a magnet for immigrants from abroad making it the state’s most diverse terrain. All of these factors have helped contributed to the increased Democratic voting in the area. Indeed, Obama’s 2012 vote margin over Republican Mitt Romney in just Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria accounted for more than his overall margin of victory over Romney statewide, underscoring the political power of a high Democratic turnout in these localities.
Compounding Donald Trump’s challenge in this territory is that it was the area of the state where he performed worst in Virginia’s Republican presidential primary this year, which he narrowly won over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 35-to-32 percent. In the close-in suburbs, Rubio thumped Trump, roughly 42-to-23 percent. Trump is going to need those suburban and exurban Republicans who resisted him in the primary to come home in the general election in November.
In order to be competitive in Virginia, Trump needs to pump up his vote in the state’s more rural areas. While Obama handily carried nearly all of the state’s major urban counties in 2012, Romney bested him in rural communities, including the Shenandoah Valley, the coal communities in the southwestern Virginia, and portions of central Virginia.
If Trump’s able to hold down Clinton’s margins in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, hold his own in the exurbs, and turn out the rural vote, the battle for the Old Dominion could turn on the outcome in the Tidewater. While the region has trended Democratic in recent years, it is also has a relatively high number of active duty military and retirees and significant blue-collar constituency who work in the shipyards of Portsmouth and Hampton. The key for Trump in this area will be to make inroads among traditionally Democratic blue collar voters and turn out the traditional Republican vote in the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. If he can do all of these things, Trump will be competitive in the Old Dominion.
Polls in Virginia close at 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, the earliest for a traditional battleground state, and the votes are counted relatively quickly there. It may not be long into Election Night that before we know the outcome in Virginia and perhaps which way the battleground is tipping between Clinton and Trump.
James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.