Know Your Battleground States 7/9: Virginia

History meets the modern world in Virginia. In 1607, the London Company established the first English colony in the New World in what later became the Old Dominion. For many Virginians, celebrating their history is almost an obsession, and one entirely befitting the America’s mother state. Old things in Virginia look old, even to Europeans.

Yet Virginia retains a cutting edge economy, and is home to many of the institutions through which the USA dominates the modern world, most notably the Pentagon. For a generation after the advent of Civil Rights, Virginia was the forerunner in what became a long standing Southern trend, supporting every Republican presidential candidate from Dwight Eisenhower to George W Bush, yet remaining Democratic at the state level. Just as the old Southern Democrat tradition finally died, rapid immigration, a diversifying economy attracting many Yankees, and the relentless creep of Washington’s suburbs across the northern part of the state has transformed the Old Dominion into a true battleground at both state and federal level.

Barack Obama broke a 60 year Democratic duck by prevailing in Virginia last time out. Whether he does so again in 2012 will go a long way to determining the destiny of the Presidency. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reckons that Virginia has the second best prospect, after only Ohio, of being the tipping point state if the potential see-saw race for an Electoral College majority emerges.

Christ Church Episcopal, Alexandria, regularly worshipped in by George Washington and Robert E. Lee

Northern Virginia, better understood as Washington’s southern suburbs, cast just over a million of Virginia’s 3.7 million votes last time. Some of Washington’s most famous institutions – from both its airports to the CIA to Arlington War Cemetery to the enormous mall at Pentagon City – are actually across the Potomac in Virginia. The population here has exploded, as suburbs spread ever further along the freeways and ever denser around the Metro stations. A generation ago, this was politically conservative territory, with Bill Clinton losing every county and city in the region, except for leftish Alexandria, twice.

In the old days, Democratic staffers in DC lived in the Maryland suburbs, and GOP staffers in Virginia. That has changed entirely. Barack Obama posted a 234k lead across the region in the last election, with a 110k lead generated in historically Republican Fairfax County alone. Washington’s efficient Metro system has brought a younger and trendier crowd out to the ‘burbs, and Northern Virginia is also an area of bewildering ethnic diversity, with over 10% of the population of Asian heritage and some of America’s largest Muslim and Hindu communities. Many local residents work either for the Federal Government or in organisations that exist to influence the Federal Government.

Heading south along I-95, the freeway that is the backbone of the East Cost’s road network, the areas around Stafford and Fredericksburg are in transition between a traditional rural Virginia past and a future as exurban homes for long distance commuters into Washington and Richmond. Although McCain led in these areas, it was not by an enormous margin and there was a particularly high swing to Democrats relative to 2004. The blue team must hope that rapid demographic change continues to limit the GOP’s inevitable leads in this region if they are to hold on to Virginia in 2012.

George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon. No Norn Iron jokes, please.

These two sub-regions sit to the north of Virginia’s great, and unheralded, cultural divide. In the north, the largest ancestry group in every county is ‘German’, a sign of the great American cultural midland, from Upstate New York to Northern California, and also a sign of heavy in-migration from other states. To the south is the patchwork of English, ‘American’ and African American ancestry characteristic of the Old South. But even here, and in contrast to North Carolina, there is the odd smattering of ‘German’ counties. The great North-South divide cuts a line from Colonial Beach to Harrisonburg, and even south of this line the culture is less heterogeneously Southern than rural Georgia or Tennessee.

The southeast of the state is the most politically competitive part. Majority Black Richmond, the state capital, is unsurprisingly a Democratic fortress, but its more populous suburbs in Chesterfield and Henrico Counties and are politically competitive, producing healthy GOP leads in a good year for team red. Obama narrowly and unexpectedly outpolled McCain, by about 2%, across these two counties, which cast over 300k votes between them in 2008, and this was a key part of his ability to win the state.

Hampton Roads, the state's second biggest population centre, is a major US Navy staging area.

Obama also managed to take a small lead out of the heavily populated Hampton Roads urban area, which cast just shy of 700k votes in 2008. One of the US Navy’s most important staging areas and with a large African American population, this area has always had areas of real Democratic strength but traditionally an overall GOP lean. In both suburban Richmond and in Hampton Roads, the swing to Obama was particularly large in 2008.

The northernmost extension of the Black Belt also sweeps through the southeast of the state. This old plantation country has a particularly high African American population, reaching a majority in a few small rural counties on the North Carolina border. Voting is less racialised here than in the Deep South, and Democrats poll a reasonable minority of rural White votes here in contrast to, say, Mississippi or Alabama, enough to win some White majority counties, especially in a good year. Rural southeastern Virginia is a patchwork of Democratic, Republican and swing counties and collectively has enough votes to make a difference in a close election.

Republicans are much stronger in the sprawling agricultural acres in the centre and west of the state, where the backbone of any GOP majority in the Old Dominion is formed. While even John Kerry won some of the larger towns in this deeply rural region, and there is one pocket of real Democratic strength around Charlottesville and Farmville, most rural counties in these parts of the state posted 60%+ vote shares for John McCain, and higher yet for W. Solid majorities of a thousand or two in many small counties add up, especially in a state where the final margin of victory stands to be in the tens of thousands or less.

Colonial re-enactment, as here at Williamsburg, is a State obsession.

The southwest of the state is a long salient which is really part of Appalachia, and in common with the rest of that region, Obama has had real image problems since he emerged onto the national scene. In nine rural counties in the far southwest, which cast a total of 70k votes in 2008, Barack Obama actually performed worse than John Kerry, and this year may be even more difficult. But this may also be a region where a summer of David Axelrod brutally – and effectively – defining Mitt Romney as a vulture capitalist flip-flopper on TV screens stems the Democratic losses and keeps the economically populist core of the Democratic minority in these poor White counties intact.

Virginia Beach - Virginia's Costa del Sol.

Advertising in Virginia is complicated by the fact that northern Virginia sits in the Washington media market. Advertising in this high-income area is expensive to begin with, and rendered moreso as broadcasting ads to NoVa residents involves paying for them to be seen by millions of viewers in solidly Democrat Maryland and the District. The campaigns have sought better value downstate, and residents of the swing voter-rich Richmond and Hampton Roads media markets must have long ago grown weary of the tidal wave of negativity on their screens. They now have only around 60 hours more to endure.

Virginia sits on a real knife edge this time and it is absolutely crucial to the course of the election. It is very difficult to see a path to victory for Mitt Romney that does not include Virginia’s 13 electoral votes. If he loses the Old Dominion, Romney’s only hope is a miracle in Pennsylvania. The state is so close that it splits the two big online polling average sites – gives Romney the edge by just 0.3%, while Huffington Post’s Pollster sees an Obama edge of just 0.9%.

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