Once-red Virginia shaping up to be Democratic stronghold

By Jenna Portnoy

Virginia delegates cheered as Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia officially became the party's vice-presidential nominee at the Democratic Convention. Photo / AP
Virginia delegates cheered as Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia officially became the party's vice-presidential nominee at the Democratic Convention. Photo / AP

A little more than a decade ago, US President George W. Bush won Virginia with ease for a second time - an eight-point victory that was never in doubt.

Over the subsequent eight years, nearly the opposite happened: Barack Obama won the state twice, becoming the first Democrat to win here since Lyndon B. Johnson's victory in 1964.

Now, Virginia appears to be drifting out of reach for Republican Donald Trump; he trailed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points in an NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll released on Saturday. Analysts are contemplating taking Virginia off the list of presidential battlegrounds entirely and tucking it neatly in the column of safely blue states. Adding to that is the fact that Clinton's running-mate, Tim Kaine, represents Virginia in the Senate.

Where uncertainty remains is whether that status applies only this year, because of the steady decline of Trump's campaign, or whether it is a sign of a longer-term problem for Virginia Republicans that will extend beyond presidential races in years to come.

What is clear is that the demographics of the state have shifted dramatically in the space of a single decade, with populations of educated, high-income professionals as well as immigrants and other minorities - all voters who tend to choose Democrats - growing in urban areas. These shifts reflect national trends, Pew research shows.

And they are particularly bad news for Trump. Not only was he propelled to victory in the GOP primaries by white, blue-collar and rural voters who are in dwindling supply in Virginia, but he also has alienated large swaths of the electorate that have become deciding factors in Virginia races: women, minorities and educated professionals.

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report predicted that Trump is at risk of losing by a landslide in the vote-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia - and that no amount of support in the less-populous rural regions could counteract that.

"Here's the problem for Trump," Wasserman said. "Not only could he get annihilated in Prince William and Loudoun. He could lose by 200,000 votes in Fairfax County."

Wasserman noted that Trump made a telling misstep at his rally in exurban Loudoun County recently. Speaking to residents of a diverse county with some of the highest income and employment rates in the country, he lamented the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs in rural Virginia.

"There isn't a demographic in Loudoun County that he hasn't turned away," Wasserman said. "Voters in Loudoun want to know what Trump will do to improve schools, infrastructure, health care - but they don't ascribe to his apocalyptic view of the country."

The outlook is so grim for Republicans that Clinton recently hit pause on some television ads in Virginia and another typically swing state, Colorado.

Meanwhile, in addition to concentrating on more competitive battlegrounds, she has turned some attention and resources to other, traditionally red states, including Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, in the hopes that the shifting demographics on display in Virginia might also work in her favour there.

Even Virginia Republicans acknowledge the challenge. Trump counts few Republican elected officials among his vocal supporters in part due to some of his more inflammatory comments, which have alienated groups including women, Muslim Americans, Hispanics and those with disabilities.

"There's still time, but to date the campaign has shown little inclination to reach out to the sorts of voters you need to get to 50 plus 1 in the commonwealth," said Phil Cox, who ran former Republican Governor Robert McDonnell's 2009 campaign - ending in a 17-point win - and is the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

McDonnell's victory seven years ago - his subsequent legal troubles notwithstanding - continues to offer solace to some GOP leaders that there remains a path to statewide victory in Virginia, if not in presidential elections, when turnout is so much higher.

It's worth noting that fewer than 2 million Virginians cast ballots in the 2009 gubernatorial race that McDonnell won - little more than half the number, 3.8 million, who voted in 2012 for president.

It's also worth noting just how enormous the voting power of the Northern Virginia suburbs has grown. In 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election campaign, he won Virginia by four points. He was buoyed by a 100,000-plus-vote advantage outside of Northern Virginia that overwhelmed Bill Clinton's 12,000-vote advantage in the areas surrounding Washington.

Fast-forward to 2012, when President Obama netted 225,000 votes in Northern Virginia, which he won by 21 points - overwhelming Republican Mitt Romney's advantage of 79,000 votes across the rest of the state.

Here's another way to look at it: From the 1992 to the 2012 presidential elections, the population of Northern Virginia grew from 1.5 million to 2.2 million. And it grew with an influx of a particular kind of voter; in that same time period, in Fairfax County alone, Democrats' lead over Republicans in Fairfax grew from three points to 15 points, according to election returns, with Obama garnering nearly 6 in 10 votes.

Now, Democrats rely on what may be fast becoming a fail-safe formula: Focus on turning out voters in the "urban crescent" of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads and the college towns of Charlottesville and Blacksburg, and it becomes really hard to lose. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe used this strategy to defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli II in the 2013 governor's race - and Clinton is on track to do the same this year.

Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the head of Trump's Virginia campaign, insists that Trump continues to have a path in Virginia. He said Trump's appeal to working-class voters is greater than Romney's was.

"A lot of people who voted for Obama will vote for Trump," Stewart said. "That's because of Trump's particular attraction to blue-collar voters. He can appeal to blue-collar voters in a way that Romney could never do."

Experts, however, disagree. Those likely voters that Stewart described live along the less densely populated Interstate 81 corridor through central Virginia and the economically challenged Southwest, as well as the battleground region of Hampton Roads. Even with the relatively high turnout of a presidential year, there simply aren't enough Trump voters to overtake Democrats' edge in the north.

Trump also appears to be lagging behind in organisation. Stewart said the campaign has 40 paid staffers in Virginia, but he did not identify any local events or field offices. The statewide communications director started on Friday - three months after Clinton's did.

Clinton, meanwhile, has 28 field offices so far and holds phone banks seven days a week.

"They bring all of the organization, they have the phone lists, they have their goals for the day, they line up all the volunteers," said Anne Murphy O'Neil, 77, a retiree who made meatloaf sandwiches on artisan bread for the latest in weekly Democratic phone banks at her Fairfax County home.

In fact, the Clinton hype is widespread enough that the campaign is fighting complacency.

- Washington Post

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