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Is Virginia really a battleground state in 2012?

The Romney and Obama campaigns are treating Virginia like a battleground state. The Obama campaign has opened 18 field offices, at least one in the Fredericksburg region, and plans to open twice that many before Labor Day. Obama’s people have been recruiting, hiring and organizing for the past six months. 

Romney is a bit behind. While Obama had the first half of this year to organize, Romney 

was busy spending his time and his money in a time-consuming slug fest to get his party’s nomination. Only now is he starting to show some presence in the Commonwealth. And most of this is thanks to the Virginia GOP. The Romney campaign, as a stand-alone effort, is still a little weak in Virginia, but the Republican Party has been aggressively setting up a network. Both candidates visited the state just last week, the campaign ads are already running, and telephone outreach, at least for the Democrats, has been going on for months.

But, wait, is Virginia really, I mean, really a “battleground” state? I’m not so sure it is. Let’s go back in time a bit to when it first began to take on that label of possibly becoming a purple state. In other words, that point when the Commonwealth was no longer quite red and not quite blue. Though Mark Warner and Tim Kaine won statewide elections in the early part of the last decade, there was nothing in those wins to signal any change in Virginia’s national Republican leanings. George Bush won both elections in 2000, and 2004, handily. Indeed, in 2000, he beat Al Gore in the supposedly Democratic bastions of Northern Virginia by a comfortable margin. But by 2006 the War in Iraq was going badly and nationally that brought some distinct turns towards to the Democrats. Here in the Old Dominion Senator Allen’s defeat was one of the most stunning upsets of the year. He lost badly in Northern Virginia and only just held his own in the outer suburbs such as Prince William and Loudoun. 

However, it was in 2008 that the big shift started to occur. It looked competitive for most of the election, but the Obama organization, which had fought a hard fight against Hillary Clinton campaign during the primary never left town. This gave Obama an edge. The primary offered him favorable publicity, and with his field offices, volunteer networks, and paid staff, staying behind after the primary all his campaign had to do was shift gears to the general election. McCain’s presence, and the GOP campaign, would take root, eventually, but arguably, it would be too little, too late.

Of course, there was the economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while major issues, weren’t as prominent in 2008 as was the near collapse of the economy. The timing for the banking crisis couldn’t have been better for the Democrats. Or worse for the Republicans. Obama, in this case, was the outsider, and McCain, by simply being the Republican candidate, with the Bush Administration still in Washington, was the insider. 

Then there was turnout. Obama was new and promising change. His appeal to young and minority voters, particularly African Americans was overwhelming. One of my sharpest memories of that campaign was the people lined up for hundreds of yards, at almost every polling station, often well before dawn, waiting for their chance to vote. Most were going to vote for Obama. The enthusiasm was staggering. One local Democratic Committee Chairman said that he had so many volunteers that he didn’t have enough lists for them to call from and six Democratic workers at each polling station was enough.

Ah, but that was four years ago. Today, Obama still holds a slight lead in the head to head polls in the Commonwealth, but this isn’t 2008. Barack Obama is the incumbent. The luster has faded, reality is reality, and the economy and the world didn’t change as much as all those enthusiastic voters hoped they would four years ago. The question, after the terrible drubbing Virginia Democrats took in 2009, and again in the 2010, is simply this – is the magic gone?

In 2009, the famed Northern Virginia powerhouse, which, with percentages of 60% or more, was the engine that gave the Democrats victories at the statewide level, buckled. The same thing almost happened in 2010. Northern Virginia hung on, barely, but the Democrats lost the two down state House seats they had won in 2008. All at once, Virginia wasn’t looking blue anymore, and indeed, it wasn’t even looking purple. It had taken on a reddish tinge and was acting decidedly Republican.

Virginia, historically, doesn’t fall in the Democratic column. 1964, and that was hardly a landslide, was the last time. In 1976, Jimmy Carter came close. And in 2004, for a short period, the Kerry campaign put on a show before declaring the state unwinable and pulling out. 2008 seemed to change things - it was a staggering upset - but a repeat of that performance is looking less and less likely. If the President is going to win Virginia, then he needs to find some of that middle class angst, mixed with a decidedly passionate youth and minority vote, to take him over the top. Think of it as a downsized 2008 campaign. If he can, then maybe, he has a chance. But this election is a brand new ball game.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

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