Virginia: Purple Haze

At a tidy suburban home in Alexandria outside Washington, D.C., with a Toyota Prius in the driveway, an American flag out front, and an “Obama for America” sign at the door, a half-dozen backers of the President are working their cell phones to try to rekindle the support that won him the state of Virginia in 2008. “Are you a supporter of the President for reelection?” volunteer Lucia Brawley asks as she bounces her year-old daughter on one hip. Brawley, 34, performs a silent victory dance as she gets her first “yes” of the evening.

More than 100 miles south, amid the pickup trucks and grain elevators that dot the landscape west of Richmond, 77-year-old Ann Tenser says she’s doing everything in her power to deny Obama a second term. “He’s a liar,” says Tenser, of Rockville, a member of the Goochland County Tea Party. “He said he was going to bring about change, but he did not tell us what kind of change. He wants us to go socialist.”

The two political poles in Virginia mirror social and cultural differences that are growing after a decade of demographic changes that, according to recently released Census data, have brought more ethnic and racial diversity to the state and the nation. The Old Dominion—once solidly Republican, overwhelmingly white, rural, and conservative—is now among the purplest of states: a diverse, technology-driven economy that is two-thirds urban and 100 percent politically competitive. After electing Obama and Democratic Senator Mark Warner in 2008, Virginia picked conservative Republicans for governor and attorney general the following year. “Everyone knows it’s going to be a battleground, and the question is, will it revert to its traditional right-of-center tendency supporting a Republican?” says Governor Bob McDonnell, the Republican elected just one year after Obama’s victory. “I think it will.”

Democrats are trying to make sure Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, doesn’t return to the red column. Brandyn Keating, who is heading Obama’s bid in Virginia, says the campaign is working to ensure that the voters who showed up three years ago will come back.

One of the most promising areas for the President is Northern Virginia, where an influx of Latinos, Asians, and young people has accompanied urbanization. Today, Virginia is almost 8 percent Latino, up from less than 5 percent a decade ago, and almost 6 percent Asian, a jump from about 3 percent in 2000. McDonnell targeted those new voters through mailings and television and radio advertising in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and other Asian languages.

While 65 percent of Virginia’s 8 million people are non-Hispanic, their numbers are increasing at a far slower rate—slightly more than 7 percent over the last decade. The state is “a bridge between the more prosperous part of the Northeastern megalopolis and the new South,” says William H. Frey, a population researcher at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “The demographics have become more favorable for Democrats. The question is whether they can take advantage of it.”

Obama won Virginia in 2008 by boosting the turnout of blacks—who now make up 19 percent of the state’s population—and young people, racking up victories in Northern Virginia and in and around urban centers. The night before his election, Obama drew 90,000 supporters to a rally in Manassas, where he beat Republican nominee John McCain 55 percent to 44 percent.

In 2009 the picture was much different. Turnout plummeted, particularly among blacks, and McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds by carrying many of the suburban and exurban swing areas that Obama had captured 12 months earlier. In Manassas, McDonnell won 62 percent of the vote.

Then last year’s Tea Party-fueled congressional wave wiped out three of Virginia’s six House Democrats, all of whom had represented Republican-leaning pockets of the state. “It’s going to be harder than in ’08” for Obama, says Warner, given the “core frustration with the lack of jobs” and expectations for lower turnout. Still, he adds, “there are a lot of folks who are more traditional, business-minded Republicans who are going to be up for grabs.”

Virginia has fared better overall than the rest of the nation in the economic slump. Nonetheless, political experts say a deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country will be a hurdle for Democrats. “Obama’s big challenge is energizing and reinvigorating the imagination of the young, white professional suburban voters who he had in 2008 and have really begun to shift,” says Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political scientist. “That’s where Democrats and Republicans will really be slugging it out.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.