Why does everyone assume Virginia is Obama country?

In the wake of Super Tuesday's split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom is that the rest of the February primary calendar favors the senator from Illinois. On balance, the evidence is pretty strong. Obama does disproportionately well in caucus states (Washington, Nebraska, Maine), in states where African Americans make up more than a quarter of the population (Louisiana, 31.7 percent; Maryland, 29.5 percent), and in lily-white northern-tier states (Nebraska, Maine, Wisconsin, and to a slightly lesser extent Washington). In fact, somewhat astonishingly, among states in which whites make up 89 percent or more of the population, Obama has won seven of eight contests so far, losing only narrowly in New Hampshire. Presumably, Obama will also manage to eke out victories in Hawaii and the District of Columbia. (Asked about his candidate's chances in his native Aloha State, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe commented dryly, "We hope we have some advantages.")

But there's one February state that doesn't fall neatly into Obama's corner. That's Virginia, which tends to get lumped in with Maryland and D.C. into the "Potomac Primary" on Tuesday. But Virginia's demographic profile is much less favorable to Obama than its Beltway cousins and the Deep South states where he's won so far. It's a border state, and only 19.9 percent black. Its closest demographic parallels among states that have voted so far are Tennessee, where Obama lost by 13 points, and Missouri, where he won by only ten thousand votes. In 2004, African Americans made up 33 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Virginia. If the proportion is the same this year and Obama wins them 80-20, he'd need about 37 percent of the white vote to win the state. That's certainly achievable, given his totals elsewhere. But it's no sure thing. In Tennessee, he won only 26 percent of the white vote; in Missouri he won 39 percent. In other Southern states his totals have ranged from to 25 percent (Alabama) to 43 percent (Georgia).

Is there reason to believe that Virginia's white Democratic electorate will be more predisposed to vote for Obama than it was in Missouri and (especially) Tennessee? Yes, due to the growing strength of upscale, educated liberals in the Washington suburbs. But while this difference is real, it isn't overwhelming. Using income as a proxy, in 2004, 18 percent of Democratic primary voters in Virginia made more than $100,000. This year, in Missouri and Tennessee, the comparable figures were 15 percent and 14 percent. That edge goes up slightly when one includes voters making between $75,000 and $100,000 per year, but those voters aren't as reliably pro-Obama as their richer counterparts. In short, one would guess that Obama would do somewhat better among whites in Virginia than he did in Missouri and Tennessee--but not dramatically better, all else equal.

Nor do other indicators in Virginia point toward an Obama romp. No polls have been taken in the state since October, when he trailed Clinton 49 percent to 25. Needless to say, those numbers are no longer accurate, but they do suggest a strong base of support for Clinton in the state--especially given that in 2004, 56 percent of Democratic primary voters were women. And even if Obama wins the statewide vote, the delegate count might not break his way, since his strongest supporters, African Americans, are packed heavily into two of the state's eleven congressional districts. Overall, Obama can expect to have the edge in four districts (the two heavily black districts and two more in the Washington suburbs), while Clinton can plan on doing well in four heavily white districts in exurban and rural Virginia. The remaining three districts remain up for grabs.

Obama certainly has some advantages in the Old Dominion. It's an open primary state, so he can take advantage of his support among independents and Republicans. Flush with cash, he's advertising on television and Clinton isn't. He has the backing of popular Governor Tim Kaine, and has six offices open in the state. Her website, by contrast, doesn't list any, aside from her national headquarters in Arlington. But so far in the Democratic campaign, demography has trumped endorsements, ads, and sometimes even organization. All things considered, Obama should be regarded as a marginal favorite in Virginia, if that.

So why is Virginia, a genuine battleground, being lumped in so casually with the other Obama-friendly states? It could well be attributable to a phenomenon I blogged about earlier. DC-based pundits say to themselves, "Well, I live in Virginia, and all my friends are voting for Obama, so he must be the favorite." But that's a misleading picture--in 2004, only 28 percent of Democratic primary votes in the state were cast in the inner Washington suburbs (Arlington County, Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax, and Fairfax County). There are still quite a few beer-track, culturally conservative white Democrats in other parts of the state. The primary can be seen, in part, as a contest between pundit Tom Schaller's Virginia (wherein Democrats win by strengthening the Obama coalition of blacks and upscale whites) and political consultant Dave "Mudcat" Saunders's Virginia (wherein they win by peeling off working-class rural whites--and by swearing. A lot.) Neither one of these camps is clearly stronger than the other, which is exactly why commentators should expect the Democratic primary to be close.

The Obama team apparently feels more confident about Virginia than the above analysis would suggest. They'd better, because they've done nothing so far to temper the developing narrative that any Obama loss prior to March 4 would be a big upset. In fact, they've stoked it. A leaked memo indicates they expect to win, and campaign operatives told the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Alec MacGillis the same thing. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, seems to be deliberately nursing that narrative, while making a strong below-the-radar play for Virginia (Clinton is holding a rally in Arlington today, and visiting the state Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond on Saturday). An unexpected Clinton win in Virginia--which should not really be unexpected at all--might be enough to deflate Obama's strong February, and get her through to March 4, when the contests Texas and Ohio look like more favorable terrain.

Josh Patashnik is a reporter–researcher at The New Republic.