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Virginia’s Role as a Demographic Bellweather in the Presidential Election

Barack Obama addressing a crowd at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in 2008.

Barack Obama addressing a crowd at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in 2008. Photo by SyalAntilles. CC-SA.

Is Virginia becoming a “blue state”? Although Virginians voted solidly Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 2004, voters in the state backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. As 2012 exit polling has demonstrated, the demographics of Obama’s coalition played an important role in his reelection. According to University of Virginia experts,  demographic shifts in Virginia also played a role in delivering the state to the Democrats in the last two elections.

Miller Center Faculty Member and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance and chair of the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics David Leblang had this to say:

The 2012 and 2008 elections have been really interesting in terms of the power of demography over ideology.

As a former resident of Colorado, I witnessed that state transition from being a red state in 2000 to purple and then blue in 2008 and 2012. Virginia is going through the same shift. In both cases, the shift is driven by what look like small blue pockets on national county-by-county election maps. Those blue pockets look small geographically, but they are densely populated areas, like Denver and the Front Range cities of Colorado, and the Northern Virginia exurban counties of Loudoun and Prince William.

What do the people look like in those blue pockets? In general, they are younger, more highly skilled, less white and less male than rest of the state. So that is the challenge for the Republican Party – how to appeal to those groups.

People become increasingly conservative as they get older, while younger people tend to be more liberal for a whole number of reasons. So how do Republicans package an emphasis on fiscal responsibility in a way that appeals to younger voters who are not yet wealthy enough to benefit from the type of tax breaks that Romney emphasized in this campaign? They have work to do, just like the Democrats did after the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Lynn Sanders, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics also offered the following insights:  

The size and relative importance of Latino, non-white and women voters has been growing for decades, continued to tick upward in 2012 and proved critical to the winning Obama coalition in several crucial battleground states, including Virginia. While Latinos represented approximately 9 percent of the national vote in the 2008 election, and 10 percent in 2012, they made up just 5 percent of the Virginia electorate, according to exit polls. But that 5 percent was crucial to Obama’s victory in Virginia.

This election should make it clear that the Latino vote’s importance is here to stay, and that both parties will be compelled to wage a healthy contest for these voters going forward. Karl Rove acknowledged as much last night when he said that Republicans may need to reevaluate their position on immigration restrictions.

If Republicans can moderate their position on immigration, and creatively tie the position to traditional Republican emphasis on values like individualism, hard work, faith in the power of free markets and resistance to government intervention, the Republicans will see Latinos respond with a new openness and curiosity to GOP positions. If the GOP moderates in response to this election, immigration and outreach to Latinos will be one of the first places that moderation will be expressed.

Non-white voters – African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans – present plenty of natural constituencies for the GOP. These groups tend to have substantial conservative attitudes, particularly related to so-called “traditional” family values and family structures, along with a commitment to religiosity. These all represent openings for the GOP.

Read the full story at UVA Today.


Date edited: 11/08/2012 (1:26PM)


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