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A Three-Piece Turnout Battle In Virginia

Before Ohio reclaimed its spot at the center of the electoral map, there was a strong case that Virginia was positioned to be the pivotal state of the 2012 election. Although Obama won the state by a smaller margin than he did nationally, Obama’s diverse coalition of blacks and well-educated suburbanites seemed relatively durable in a year when most of the president’s losses came from white working class voters, who represented just 13 percent of Obama’s ’08 coalition in the Commonwealth. Now that Obama is doing better in Ohio than he is nationally, Virginia is less important to the electoral math. But the polls still show a dead-heat in Virginia, just as they do nationally.

Unlike the moderate and monochromatic Midwestern states, Virginia is an assemblage of diverse, partisan voting blocs. In 2008, white evangelicals were 29 percent of the Virginia electorate, 30 percent was non-white, 23 percent were post-graduates, while just 22 percent were white independents. Only 19 percent of Obama’s 2008 supporters were white independents, less than every battleground state save North Carolina. With most demographic groups locked into their eventual preferences, Virginia is a true turnout battle where margins will determine the outcome. Only a few counties would flip from Obama to Romney in the event of a Romney win, and it’s even conceivable that none of the state's most prominent swing counties—Loudon, Henrico, Prince William—would flip at all.

Obama won Virginia by 230,000 votes in 2008, and much of Romney’s improvement will come from the conservative, white, and rural western half of the state. These counties represent 29 percent of the state electorate and they voted for McCain by 20 points, suggesting that there’s still room for Romney to make further inroads. Obama is most vulnerable in southwestern Virginia, where the ‘war on coal’ might cause traditionally Democratic voters to abandon a president they never really supported en masse. Clinton won more than 80 percent of the vote in several coal country counties during the 2008 Democratic primary, and McCain actually improved over Bush's performance.

Romney’s ability to run up the score in western Virginia will be essential to his chances statewide, since it reduces his dependence on low black turnout or winning over social moderates in the D.C. suburbs and exurbs. But judging how many more voters Romney can get out of western Virginia is more difficult than in other states. The McCain campaign’s half-hearted effort probably didn’t mobilize the state’s conservative voters, and the Bush campaign clearly didn’t in a non-competitive contest. A different way to frame this question might be: how much would Obama have won Virginia if McCain fought as hard for the Commonwealth as he did for Ohio? The answer would seem to be “less than 6.3 points,” but whether more advertisements or a stronger turnout operation would have improved McCain’s standing by .5 or 1.5 or 2.5 points is harder to say.

The answer to that question makes a big difference. Even if Romney gained 10 points over McCain’s performance in western Virginia, Romney would only net-110,000 votes—about half of what he needs to flip the state. Although Romney could certainly make up the final 120,000 votes over the eastern two thirds of the state, his chances would start to depend as much on Obama’s turnout operation as anything under his control. Obama’s support in the eastern half of the state comes from groups who aren’t especially likely to swing hard in Romney’s direction, and Romney’s task could get even harder if the number of black voters increases further, as it appears poised to do in North Carolina.

Virginia’s large African American population is concentrated in the eastern half of the state, and especially in the southeast, where a collection of majority black rural counties and medium sized cities including Richmond, Hampton, and Norfolk represented 16 percent of the electorate and voted for Obama by 35 points. While northern Virginia is usually the focus of those who discuss the Democratic base in Virginia, these majority black counties voted for Obama by 210,000 votes—about as much as all of northern Virginia. Because of strong black turnout and support, Obama actually would have won Virginia without any votes out of the D.C. suburbs. But black voters helped Obama, even outside of these of the counties where Obama's performance was driven by black voters. The diverse northern suburbs of Richmond in Henrico County, for instance, are 29 percent black and voted 56 percent for Obama. Despite the “swing county” billing, Romney will probably lose it—even if he wins statewide.

Romney will have better luck making inroads into Virginia Beach and Loudon County. Virginia voters making more than $250,000/year voted for Obama in 2008, but if they move back in Romney’s direction, it would move Loudon County the most, a rich and relatively white, exurban county to the west of Washington. Romney’s pledge to increase defense spending might also play well in northern Virginia, home to many beneficiaries of defense industry contracts. Defense spending also resonates in the heavily militarized Tidewater area and especially Virginia Beach, where Obama made huge gains in 2008. Unlike most other areas where Obama made big gains outside of northern Virginia, Virginia Beach is only 19 percent black, suggesting that Obama’s improvements were built on Bush-Obama voters that might be prone to flip back in 2012.

Assuming that the Obama campaign can replicate black turnout, OFA’s biggest challenge is to run up their margin in the well educated, affluent, and diverse suburbs of northern Virginia. The D.C. suburbs, including the cities of Alexandria and Arlington, as well as Fairfax County, represented 19 percent of the Virginia electorate and voted for Obama by 200,000 votes or 27 percent in 2008. Another strong showing in northern Virginia will require big margins among college educated and postgraduate women, as well as a decent showing among the affluent, college educated men who seem likely to flip toward Romney in Loudon County. One factor helping Obama more in the D.C. suburbs than generally acknowledged is diversity. Just 55 percent of residents in the D.C. suburbs are white, and Obama's endurance among non-white voters will help him in this part of the state. But non-white voters in northern Virginia aren't just black or Hispanic, there's a large Asian population, as well. While the details of Hispanic and African American voting preferences are well-studied, the Asian vote has received less attention and although Obama made big gains among Asians in 2008, it's unclear whether can retain those gains. His ability to do so will be important to the president's margin in northern Virginia. 

Virginia’s diversity makes it a puzzle where both sides possess varying paths to victory through different demographic groups. One path involves a Romney rout in western Virginia, coupled with turnout from latent Republicans, and a few targeted inroads among voters in the D.C. exurbs and Virginia Beach. But each of these points are debatable—Romney might make bigger gains in northern Virginia, ’08 Republican turnout might not have been bad, black turnout might decrease, or Obama might hold up well among white working class voters who have traditionally voted for Democrats and aren’t sold on a wealthy Republican nominee. Virginia is poised to be one of the closest states on Election Night and also one of the most interesting, since 2012 will be the first close presidential contest since Virginia moved from Republican to a true battleground.