David S. Kerr column
How Northern Virginia changed America’s electoral map
Virginia has been through several political realignments in the 20th and 21st centuries – probably more so than most states. Its most recent political shift, caused mostly by changes in Northern Virginia, occurred over just a few years and altered Virginia’s position on America’s electoral map.
For most of my life, in presidential races Virginia could be counted on to do one thing and that was to vote Republican – often with Northern Virginia leading the way. This shift began a long time ago when the commonwealth broke with the Democratic “Solid South.” Virginia voted for Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Richard Nixon in 1960, and with one exception, when it supported Lyndon Johnson in 1964, stayed reliably in the Republican fold until 2008.
However, before Barack Obama flipped the state for the first of three successive Democratic presidential wins, the change had already begun. Fairfax County, which has the most voters of any jurisdiction in Virginia, voted for George Bush in 2000, then swayed heavily in favor of John Kerry in 2004 and in 2008 supported Obama.
But there was more. While its neighbors Arlington and Alexandria had been Democratic stalwarts for years, the counties of Loudoun and Prince William, themselves formerly Republican strongholds, were also getting bigger and more diverse and began their shift as well.
However, there is one very important point in this discussion. It isn’t as if the whole of Virginia turned blue and started voting Democratic. Almost all of the sway toward the Democrats is in Northern Virginia.
So, how did a handful of counties come to dominate Virginia politics? There are a couple of parts to this answer. First, Northern Virginia got bigger and is still getting bigger. Fairfax is larger than some of the nation’s largest cities. Most of these new voters are younger and well educated, and they are more likely to be young adults and often still single.
Also, most were born outside Virginia, with many of them or their parents being born outside the United States. While not guaranteed liberals, they are by far more receptive to the Democratic message than to the GOP’s. At least that’s been the case so far.
What’s remarkable is how quickly this happened. As recently as 2000 and 2004 Republican presidential candidates knew Virginia was GOP territory. It was a nice place to have a supportive rally to boost the candidate’s spirits and to help down-ticket nominees. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush made regular forays into the state during their campaigns, although neither was ever at risk of losing the state.
However, that started to change. The Obama campaign, one of the most efficient political organizations ever created, studied the demographic data and saw Virginia as winnable.
Even during the Democratic primary, Obama’s folks were prepping Virginia to flip in ’08. They set up a network of offices, had hundreds of volunteer and paid doorknockers, equipped their canvassers with iPads (a cutting edge move back in 2008) to gather data, and managed to find and mobilize the state’s new Democratic majority. Technology and aggressive voter outreach, mostly in Northern Virginia, had a lot to do with flipping the state.
However, there is a downside to this shift. If you look at a map and color in the red and blue counties, it’s easy to see. There are two Virginias. There is the northern, liberal, Democratic “suburban crescent” as it’s sometimes called, and there is the rest of Virginia. The latter is decidedly red.
There was always a difference between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. It’s just that now Northern Virginia is able to muster many more voters than the rest of the state. While good for the Democrats politically, in the long run such regional divides aren’t all that healthy.
So, where are we now? In 2020, Virginia is all but sure to support the Democrats. Can it slip back into being a swing state? Yes, of course – politics is inherently fluid, but the GOP is going to have to field stronger and more appealing candidates. And, when it comes to technology and identifying potential voters, steal some pages from the Democratic playbook.
However, in the meantime, Northern Virginia has changed the electoral map – something that has national implications. That’s no small feat.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.