The standard question for political science students at The College of William and Mary is, “WTF,” according to Professor Larry Evans.
As Virginia policy wonks, we were wondering the same thing. From rapid swings in voter demographics, preferences and participation, and the chance to see close nearly two dozen presidential candidates stroll through town this year, “it’s a fun time,” to be engaged in Virginia politics, Evans said. (“Fun,” we should clarify, in this sense refers to the study of politics, not necessarily its real-life impact.)
It wasn’t always this way.
When Virginians elected former President Barack Obama in 2008, the once reliably conservative Commonwealth of Virginia suddenly became a battleground state. But in the past 11 years, we’ve barely seen a primary race play out here among the Democrats. The old bastion of the Confederacy is still a battleground, but today more so in-between Democrats than between liberals and conservatives.
“Some people say it’s purple,” said Evans, a political scientist and author of three books on politics and government. “I think, more accurately, most of the major demographic and political backers that you see nationally play out in the Commonwealth, so it’s a nice microcosm.” Translation: Virginia, like the country, is more blue than red.
Exceedingly so. “That doesn’t mean there’s not a Republican candidate who could conceivably carry [the state],” Evans said, but “for the time being, anyway, I would say it’s pretty solidly in the Democratic camp.”
In part because of its similarities to the national electorate, and, to a broader extent, Democratic voters, Virginia is getting an early look from Democratic presidential candidates, who may see it as a bellwether state.
“We have a Democratic electorate that fits a bunch of the different components of the Democratic party in ways that some of the earlier states may not,” said John McGlennon, also a political science professor at William and Mary. As with Democrats nationwide, Virginia’s voters include a large non-white population, led by African-Americans, but with a growing number of Hispanic and Asian Americans, too. There’s “still a residual rural vote,” McGlennon said, and there are diverse suburban populations scattered across the state that include both blue and white collar voters.
“In essence you basically have lots of different elements, which are going to need to be stitched together for a Democratic presidential candidate to succeed next year [nationally],” McGlennon said.
It also doesn’t hurt that Virginia holds its Democratic primary on Super Tuesday, March 3, ahead of the majority of contests in other states and territories.
With former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe cementing his decision not to make a bid for the 2020 nomination, McGlennon said the Commonwealth is very much in play for any of the 21 announced Democratic contenders, who might have otherwise seen McAuliffe’s chances of winning at home too high to contest.
“Virginia is likely to play a very significant role in the election,” McGlennon said.
Democratic presidential hopefuls are already making a splash. On April 15, Indianapolis Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced plans to visit the Commonwealth for a June Fundraiser. Over the two days following his announcement, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, the first 2020 contender to visit the state, made nine campaign stops from Norfolk to Alexandria. During O’Rourke’s Virginia tour, several supporters interviewed at his events said it was the first time in living memory they could recall a presidential candidate rolling through town.
Drawing more eyes toward the Commonwealth, the following week, former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy in a video that paid particular attention to past events in Charlottesville.
Compared to 2008, when Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state since in a general election since 1964, the last two presidential election cycles have been quiet. The Virginia Democratic primary was practically over before it started in 2016 when Clinton, the heavy favorite, hardly campaigned in the state, leaving that job to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, her running mate who all but guaranteed a win for Clinton in Virginia. Sanders did pay a visit, but his fanfare in other parts of the country did not play well in Virginia, where he lost the Democratic primary by a margin of about two to one. In 2012, Obama ran unopposed.
But Virginia is in play again for Democrats who want to be president, who, along with the national media, are keeping a keen eye on the state.
For one thing, “you’re just going to see candidates wandering around because there’s so damn many of them,” Evans said.
Virginia Democrats don’t seem to mind. As Rep. Abigail Spanberger, put it when speaking at O’Rourke’s campaign stop in Richmond: “Look at the progress we have made because suddenly Henrico County is on the map!”
Virginia as a litmus test for the primary and General Election?
Not so fast, Evans said, “ask Hillary about that,” he joked. Though Clinton ultimately won the Democratic nomination, her landslide victory in Virginia neither foreshadowed what became a much more competitive primary race than expected, nor previewed her surprising loss in the General Election.
Because the Virginia electorate mirrors the national electorate, a strong primary performance in Virginia should still be something to feel good about for either party’s eventual nominee.
There’s a really strong Democratic turn in Virginia that speaks well for the party nationally
“It’s a bellwether state in the sense that when you look at the numbers, there’s a really strong Democratic turn in Virginia that speaks well for the party nationally,” Evans said.
In terms of having racial diversity and other key demographics like suburban white women and young college educated voters, groups who moved strongly towards the Democrats over the last 10 years, Virginia is certainly of much more interest than it was a decade or two ago, McGlennon said.
“For decades my watching of the presidential cycle was usually from the sidelines,” McGlennon said, “We’d watch [campaign ads] on C-SPAN or you know on the internet but never see it on our own TVs.”
That’s changed today, with campaign ad spending routinely exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars in Virginia.
With an early primary, the 2019 Democratic contest will be “a good opportunity for a lot of candidates to try to test their messages with portions of the electric,” McGlennon said. “There won’t be that many candidates left by the time Virginia votes, but it could wind up being a pretty important state in the process.”
It wasn’t always this way. From 1952 to 2004, Virginians chose the Republican candidate 13 times of 14 presidential elections.
But in 2008, Barack Obama turned the state blue for the first time in a general election since LBJ.
One of the first notable warning signs of Republicans’ waning power came in 2004, McGlennon said. “If you look at Fairfax County today, right, it’s overwhelmingly Democratic.” It might surprise some people to learn, he said, “that in 2004 John Kerry managed to barely win in Fairfax County and he was the first Democrat in 40 years to carry the county.”
Kerry won 50.3% of the vote in Fairfax in 2004, benefitting from an influx of suburbanites to Northern Virginia.
“In the past, these suburbanites have been sort of fiscally conservative — they’ve always been socially liberal — and the Republican Party, really under George Bush, sort of completed the transition toward a social conservatism that really doesn’t resonate with suburban women,” McGlennon said.
Cities played a critical role in Democrats’ recent Virginia winning streak, too. McGlennon explained that “in our recent history, where turnout tended to lag far behind the rest of the state, the urban electorate has gotten energized.”
McGlennon cited two explanations for the transformed urban vote — Barack Obama and more college graduates in Virginia.
Obama’s 2008 campaign brought an “enormous shift in attention to the primary,” McGlennon said. In 2008, 26.9 percent of the eligible voting population participated in the primary elections in Virginia, shattering turnout from the previous election cycle, when only 7.5 percent showed up to the ballot box. Obama went on to win 52.6 percent of the vote in Virginia, a 9-point swing from former President George W. Bush’s 2004 victory.
Moreover, cities like Norfolk and Richmond, which had for decades endured population loss, began to grow again in the mid-2000s, attracting more young, affluent, educated white voters, who likewise lean Democratic. “So now you not only have Democrats winning these central cities by large percentages, but the numbers of votes being cast have increased dramatically,” McGlennon said.
The flipside to Democratic gains state-wide is that they’ve lost ground in rural Virginia. Clinton lost rural counties handily in 2016. But another Democrat could have better luck in the future — Bernie Sanders’ populist appeal played well in these counties during the primary.
Last but not least, voter participation is up across the Commonwealth. That’s worked in Democrats’ favor. McGlennon said “participation rates have generally been higher and they’ve been growing particularly among groups that historically have had low levels of participation,” like hispanics and African Americans.
Participation among young people is also up, even in non-presidential years. Thirty-four percent of youth voters participated in the 2017 gubernatorial election, 8-points higher than in 2013, and twice the rate (17 percent) of 2009.
According to CIRCLE, a Tufts University research group, 69 percent of youth voters backed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam; 30 percent chose Republican challenger Ed Gillseppe.