Virginia, that commonwealth with more Civil War battlefields than Stop signs and the place where every historic person who ever lived in America was either born, buried or died (Usually all three. Seriously, I think Robert E. Lee was born in about ten places, according to Virginia guide books).
Virginia, a commonwealth with so much history, beauty, and personality that you can call her a poetic “she” (You cannot call Stockton, California a “she”).
Virginia, she of the proud (and expensive…. $24/tour/person!) Monticello – that enduring, iconic watchman of the hills. Virginia, she of the muggy until fall arrives and its leafy absolution invites your insides to share in the splendor of the outside.
Virginia, the home of Old Town Alexandria – one of those coruscating plops of “historic” boutiques and “historic” shops that are just old buildings selling new stuff to rich people who think they’re better than everyone else.
Virginia, the only state besides Vermont that starts with a “V”. Virginia, the only state (except for West Virginia) that has the word “virgin” in it and an “ia” next to the “virgin”.
Okay clearly I’m running out of things about Virginia and should probably move on to the politics.
So... before we look at the five most important battleground counties in the state/commonwealth, let me explain a few acronyms.
WBDWITCASDBO = “Woah, Bob Dole won this county, and so did Barack Obama”, which rather cryptically, refers to counties that both Bob Dole and Barack Obama won.
As a whole, Virginia is a state that voted for Dole in 1996 and Obama 12 years later, but many counties haven’t changed preference. The WBDWITCASDBO designation, therefore, is a measure of those counties that have changed, which is an important development to catalog.
REOD = “rotating exhibits on display” and will refer to all items of historical interest, as per Virginia visitor centers.
BMWABMWBH = “Both Mark Warner and Bob McDonnell won big here”, meaning that you can’t draw anything about Virginia from their wins except that both Warner and McDonnell are popular.
In other words, even though McDonnell narrowly won Fairfax County, it's laughable to conclude Romney has an edge there, and even though Warner won Chesterfield County, you can’t say Obama has an edge there.
Okay... here, then, are the five top counties in the state to watch (in no particular order).
CHESTERFIELD COUNTY = 4th most populous county (White 65%, Black 22%, Hispanic 7%)
2008: John McCain 53% Barack Obama 46%
2004: George W. Bush 63% John Kerry 37%
2000: George W. Bush 63% Al Gore 35%
1996: Bob Dole 61% Bill Clinton 32%
The English first settled in Chesterfield County in 1611 after Jamestown proved too harsh to stomach (in other words, Chesterfield was settled by losers).
A little later, residents built a structure called “Mount Malady”, which was the first American hospital and, therefore, the place to be if you’d just had your face eaten off by a colonist overdosing on bath salts.
Today Chesterfield is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and lies on the southern end of the Richmond Metropolitan area. The rapid population growth has fueled a relatively strong economy and many more voters – most of whom are the suburban types that Romney was allegedly created in a lab to appeal to.
Each presidential cycle, the county has produced about 30,000 more votes than the previous, and the majority – usually, the huge majority -- of those tend to be Republican.
Chesterfield has a long history of Republicanism (In Virginia, everything has a long history – Facebook stock has traded there since 1793 and is currently at 24 cents/share). To show just how GOP it’s historically been, while Bill Clinton was beating up Bob Dole nationally, Dole downed him by 28% in Chesterfield.
That being said, Obama made the county much closer in 2008. He outperformed John Kerry by a whopping 16% even while eventually losing Chesterfield by 9%.
So the question is – how much of Obama’s 2008 performance in Chesterfield is repeatable? Can he hold Romney’s margin down to 9%.
Unfortunately, Virginia is a cruel commonwealth for political watchers and doesn’t register voters by party, so we can’t look to party registration as a guide.
Instead, let’s turn to demographics – that reliable friend of Democrats and uncertain shaper of Israel if Palestinians are granted a right of return.
Chesterfield’s political demographics haven’t changed as much as they have in other VA counties, but they’ve still moved in a more favorable direction for Democrats. Whites, for example, made up 76% of the population in 2000 and now make up 65%. The drop has been picked up by both Hispanics and blacks, who are strong Democratic voting blocs.
Thus, it seems tough for Romney to score the kind of margins George W. Bush did, and margins will absolutely matter. This county is one of the biggest producers of raw Republican votes.
So what’s a good number for Romney and Obama here, and can we glean anything from recent elections?
Well, unfortunately, Chesterfield is victim, big-time, to the BMWABMWBH phenomenon. Bob McDonnell won by 33%, while Mark Warner won by 18%. Further, the county is represented at the congressional level by Eric Cantor and J. Randy Forbes. Both incumbents won by almost 30% in 2010, but again – they’re incumbents.
In other words, there hasn’t been a competitive county-wide election since 2008, so it’s hard to guess what kind of margin Romney can rack up.
But we do know this – Chesterfield doles out a lot of raw votes, and Romney has got to perform substantially better here than McCain if he’s going to pull out Virginia. If he hits 60%, he can breathe easier and have a shot at this thing. If Obama can hit 43%-45%, he’ll have deprived Mitt of the kind of margins he needs here.
I'm setting this at...
Romney wants to hit: 60%
Obama wants to hit: 43%-45%
The upshot is that, based on demographics, I think it’ll be tough for Romney to hit 60% here, and that makes it much more tough to win the state.
HENRICO COUNTY = 6th most populous (White 57% Black 30% Asian 7% Hispanic 5%)
2008: Obama 56% McCain 44%
2004: Bush 54% Kerry 46%
2000: Bush 55% Gore 43%
1996: Dole 53% Clinton 40%
I could write something about this county, but instead, I’m going to just link toand include a bit from Peter Hamby’s recent, fantastic read on why Henrico is one of, if not, the key county to watch in Virginia.
Affluent white voters are increasingly opting to settle in Chesterfield or Hanover instead. Out-of-state newcomers, known locally as "come-heres," have arrived in large numbers, further diluting Henrico's conservative flavor.
"It's gone Republican, and it's gone Democrat, and it's because there is a big group of independents who will vote the person and vote the issue, and where those independents go, that's where the elections go," McDonnell said.
African-Americans now account for a third of Henrico residents, up from 20% two decades ago, according to census data.
.... Democrats and Republicans alike say the area is increasingly taking on the character of the rest of the state.
"On election night, I want to know what Henrico is doing," said former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a Republican who lost the county to Kaine in the 2005 governor's race. "It's really gone from red to purple in the last five to seven years. As Henrico goes, I think, the state will go in the presidential race and the Senate race, mainly because of the diversity in the county."
Levar Stoney, a Democratic operative advising likely gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, said the county has a little bit of everything: moderates, conservatives, liberals, blacks, evangelicals, business types and more.
"It's a cross-section of Virginia," he said. "If you find out what the vote total is on election night in Henrico, you will probably have a good idea of where Virginia is on election night as well."
FAIRFAX COUNTY = Most populous county (White 55% Asian 18% Hispanic 16% Black 9%)
2008: Obama 60% McCain 39%
2004: Kerry 53% Bush 46%
2000: Bush 49% Gore 48%
1996: Dole 48% Clinton 47%
If you’re a guy, move here, and if you’re a gal who wants to marry a guy who won’t die way before you, also move here, because males’ life expectancy is 81.1 years – highest in the nation – and female’s expectancy 83.8 years.
(Life expectancy is a complicated thing to compute and explain, but I’ll try to do it quickly: If you drive a motorcycle and get knocked onto the pavement while going 120 miles/hour, you are less likely to die if that happens in Fairfax County than in other counties. So yes, that’s what life expectancy means. It means you can do horribly dangerous things and not die from them, because the county lines serve as a “medical buffer”, to use the specific term. Lawrence of Arabia would not have died if he’d been biking in Fairfax County. Again, this is what life expectancy means… I think).
Fairfax County makes up a big honkin’ 13.5% of the population of Virginia, and while it’s not accurate to say that as Fairfax County goes, so goes the election, it is accurate to say that this is where those super heavy raw votes are racked up.
If there’s one number that should stick in your head, it’s 60%. That’s what Obama scored in 2008, and if he hits that again, he’s the odds-on favorite to retake the state.
For Romney, the big number is 45%. In 2004, Bush hit 46% in Fairfax, which proved a close enough margin to blunt all those raw votes. Considering the favorable demographic changes for Democrats in the county, hitting 45% would be pretty significant for Romney.
Strangely enough, Fairfax is one county that’s actually lost votes recently. Roughly, 14.4% of the state’s vote was housed in Fairfax County in 2004. But in 2008 that dropped to 13.8%. It’s too screwy to use midterms as turnout guides, so let’s give Fairfax about 14% of the total share. A sizable Obama win here means an edge to take the state/commonwealth.
Romney wants to hit = 45%
Obama wants to hit = 60%
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY = 3rd most populous (White 49% Black 20% Hispanic 20% Asian 8%)
2008: Obama 58% McCain 42% (about 160K votes)
2004: Bush 53% Kerry 46% (132K votes)
2000: Bush 53% Gore 45% (about 100K votes)
1996: Dole 50% Clinton 43% (about 75K votes)
Prince William lies just west of Fairfax County and, as such, isn’t quite as wealthy or quite as populated. That’s not to say it’s a quiet hamlet in New England, though.
It’s the third most populous county in the state and presided over by the city of Manassas, which is not the misspelled name of a town devoted to author David Marannis, but is instead the site of Civil War brutality, bloodshed, and brown signs that point you to the bloodshed and explain it with ROED (“rotating exhibits on display” – remember).
The population growth here has been incredible. Compare the raw votes in 1996 (75K) with those in 2008 (160K), and you’ll find an 85,000 jump.
Further, this county has seen one of the most dramatic political reversals in Virginia and, perhaps, the country over the past 16 years.
In 1996, Bob Dole won Prince William by 8% and last year, Obama won by 16%. That’s a 24% reversal in fewer than 20 years, and if you want to know what’s happened, look no further than the demographics.
Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by an astounding 200% and now the demo composes 20% of the population. Meanwhile, the white population only grew by 20% in those same ten years.
That leaves an ethnic makeup that looks like this: White 49% Hispanic 20% Black 20% Asian 8%. In other words, Prince William is a majority-minority county. An alternate name for that is "A Democratic County".
And, by the looks of it, this new Democratic territory will become more and more important. Between 2000 and 2010, its population grew by 43.2% ; whereas, Virginia’s only jumped by 13%.
There are a couple vestiges of Republican control left. For example, 6 of the 8 board county supervisors are Republican, but they were elected while elephants still ruled the tent and their reelections probably have more to do with incumbency than party.
Barack Obama will win Prince William, but like in Fairfax County, the only question is by how much.
Will Hispanics, somewhat less enthusiastic about the president this time, turn out for the POTUS and deliver big margins for Obama? Or can Romney overperform by igniting the GOP base that lives here but has lost power over the past four years?
As in Fairfax County, Romney can probably smile a bit if he hits 45%, while Obama can breathe easier if he hits 60%.
Romney wants to hit: 45%
Obama wants to hit: 60%
One final note. Prince William does not live in Prince William County. He lives in England.
VIRGINIA BEACH CITY = 2nd most populous (White 65% Black 20% Hispanic 7% Asian 6%)
2008: McCain 49.9% Obama 42.2%
2004: Bush 59% Obama 40%
2000: Bush 56% Gore 42%
1996: Dole 50.6% Clinton 41%
CHESAPEAKE CITY = 8th most populous (White 60% Black 30% Hispanic 4% Aisan 3%)
2008: Obama 50% McCain 49%
2004: Bush 57% Kerry 42%
2000: Bush 53% Gore 45%
1996: Dole 46.7% Clinton 45.8%
I put these next to each other, because geographically, they lie side-by-side and since all geographic side-by-sides think exactly the same about political matters (e.g. Israel and Jordan; North and South Korea), I’m lumping them together.
First, though, a quick technicality – both Virginia Beach City and Chesapeake City are not, technically, counties but, instead, independent cities. But for purposes of political watchers, they’re often referred to as counties, so that’s what I’ll do.
So… check out those 2008 numbers. Both of these counties were extraordinarily close, and those were both historically bad performances for a Republican and good showings for a Democrat.
Does that mean these two places are trending Democratic, as they are in other key counties we’ve looked at?
As for Virginia Beach County, probably not. It only grew by 3%. That’s in contrast to a place like Prince William County, which grew by 43%. So in Virginia Beach, there’s not a whole new batch of residents to reshape the county.
Second, let’s consider, my super sleuth, Clue-playing friends, the case of Rep. Scott Rigell (R), who represents the county.
In 2010, Rigell beat Democratic incumbent Glenn Nye by 13%. NOW…. what makes that important is that Nye was swept to office in 2008 in the Obama wave, yet two years later, he got thrashed by Republican Rigell.
In other words, at the congressional level, this Virginia Beach City voted strongly against a Democrat it had elected in 2008. As such, it’s a pretty good test case for the Obama phenomenon.
Obviously, Obama is probably working with a more favorable political environment in 2012 than Democrats in 2010, but he’s going to have to do far, far better than Democratic incumbent, Glenn Nye, did in 2010.
My ruling? If Romney is going to win Virginia, he has GOT to do much, much better in Virginia City than John McCain. I think he’s likely to do quite a bit better, which is one of the reasons why the margin in Virginia will be closer this time.
Romney wants to hit: 55%-60%
Obama wants to hit: 45%-50%
Now, as far as Chesapeake goes, it’s headed in a different demographic direction. While its neighbor has hardly changed at all, Chesapeake has grown by 11%. That’s not huge growth, but it’s three times the growth of Virginia Beach city.
As in the state/commonwealth at large, Chesapeake has gotten less white since 2000, but not enough to justify McCain’s rotten performance in 2008. The AZ senator only pulled in 49%, while George W. Bush picked up 57% in 2004. That’s a steeper drop-off than warranted by the slightly shifting demographics and means that Chesapeake is another place where Romney can and has to outperform McCain.
Meanwhile, if Obama approximates his 2008 performance in Chesapeake (as well as Virginia Beach), he'll probably win state-wide. Historically, this region has been a reliable and significant source of Republican raw votes, and an Obama win here will make it very tough, indeed, for Romney to take the state.
Romney wants to hit: 53%-57%
Obama wants to hit: 48%-52%
SO... what doe this all mean?
After looking at all of this closely, I think Obama will win Virginia unless there's a national tidal wave (he's currently up by 2.7% in the RCP average of polls), and Romney ends up taking the national popular vote by 6%-7%.
The demographics of Virginia have just gotten too tough for Romney, and his prospects are further hampered by the state's relatively strong economy.
I'll be releasing additional battleground guides in the coming months, and you can read my first in the series -- MISSOURI -- here.
I updated this post.