Analyzing Swing States: Virginia, Part 5

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click to map links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

This is the fifth part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It focuses on the traditional Democratic base and its decline. The last part can be found here.

In the days of the Solid South, Democrats worried more about primary elections than Republican challengers. The party, under the sway of the Byrd machine, dominated almost every part of the state – as it did throughout the South.

Civil rights and suburban growth broke the back of this coalition. In 1952 Virginia voted for Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower. By the 1970s Virginia had elected its first Republican governor, senator, and attorney general in nearly a century.

Democrats were left with strength in two reliable regions – the southeast and the western panhandle. These places constituted the traditional Democratic base, which Democrats relied on for a number of decades.

The 1996 presidential election provides an excellent illustration of this base:

Link to 1996 presidential election map

With his rare ability to command support among both poor Appalachian whites and poor Southern blacks, Mr. Clinton performed powerfully with the traditional Democratic coalition. As the map indicates, the incumbent president dominated the southeast, while winning a number of counties in the panhandle. It is an illustration of the traditional base at a strong point.

Clinton also lost Virginia by two percentage points. This indicates something else: it is actually very difficult to win the state with the traditional Democratic base. There are just not enough Appalachian whites and blacks (20% of the population) in Virginia. Take mostly black, heavily Democratic Richmond. In 2008 a little more than 90,000 votes were cast in the city. A respectable number – but barely more than half the 162,088 votes cast in neighboring, suburban Chesterfield County.

Richmond also constitutes an important part of the Virginia’s Democratic-voting southeast – the first prong of the classical Democratic coalition. Democratic strength in this region can be explained through demographics; the region is home to much of the state’s black population:

Map of Virginia's black population

Black voters, grateful for its passage of Civil Rights, remain a vital constituency of the Democratic coalition. They constitute a stable block of voters  for a Democratic candidate to build upon.

Geographically, Democrats usually win a few rural, majority-black counties in the southeast. In addition, black votes give Democrats sizable margins coming out of Richmond and four Hampton Roads cities – Norfolk (the largest), Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News. In 2008 Senator Barack Obama’s vote ranged from 64% (Newport News) to 79% (Richmond) in each of these cities.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the second prong of their traditional base – the Appalachian panhandle – is quickly moving away from them. This area is fairly rural and somewhat poor; as the map above indicates, its population is fairly homogeneously white. Until recently, Democrats could rely on panhandle votes even in the event of a double-digit loss. Its residents voted Democratic based off a combination of economic interests and tradition.

As the party becomes more metropolitan-based and liberal, however, the panhandle has been drifting away. The election of President Barack Obama, an ill-fit with Appalachian America, has accelerated the rightward movement. In 2009, Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds lost the panhandle by a landslide.

Map of Mr. Deeds's loss (county lean)

Even in the days in which the panhandle voted loyally Democratic, the base – as has been noted before – was insufficient for statewide victory. Democrats needed to add another prong to their coalition. Mr. Clinton attempted to do so by reviving support amongst the rural whites who’d long ago abandoned the Democratic Party; he mostly failed in his endeavor. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter did much better with rural whites but much worse with their suburban counterparts; Mr. Carter also barely lost Virginia.

Statewide Democratic candidates, on the other hand, have been able to win the state through a combination of the traditional base and a respectable suburban showing. Indeed, no Democratic presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial candidate has won Virginia, for at least two decades, while losing suburban Fairfax County.

In recent years Democrats have traded the Appalachian panhandle for these NoVa suburbs. This switch has, in the aggregate, been to their benefit. The old Democratic base was rarely enough to win Virginia. With the addition of NoVa, Democrats have won three out of four past statewide elections. Virginia has moved from a red state to a purple one.




Maps of Pennsylvania Elections

A few maps of Pennsylvania’s presidential elections are linked below, for your enjoyment. (Unfortunately, I don't know how to post images on this site). Each map comes with some brief analysis. Note how in each succeeding election, Democratic margins in the Philadelphia metropolis increase, while their margins in the Pittsburgh corridor decrease.

Pennsylvania, 2008 presidential election.

(Note: Because the Times stopped updating before all absentee/provisional ballots were counted, this map does not fully reflect the actual results. I have corrected the discrepancy.)

 As the national tide increasingly turns in Senator Barack Obama’s favor, Senator John McCain mounts a quixotic attempt to win Pennsylvania. While Mr. McCain improves in the southeastern rustbelt, Democratic dominance in eastern Pennsylvania ensures a double-digit blue margin.


Pennsylvania, 2004 presidential election.

President George W. Bush mounts a determined attack on Pennsylvania, coming within 2.5% of Senator John Kerry. Mr. Bush does quite well in the traditionally Democratic Pittsburgh corridor and Republican strongholds throughout the “T.” But double-digit losses in Philadelphia’s suburbs (and a 400,000 vote deficit coming out of the city itself) prevent Mr. Bush from victory.


Pennslyvania, 2000 presidential election.

Without President Bubba holding the line, Republican margins in Pennsyltucky are much higher. Nevertheless, Al Gore closely carries Pennsylvania based on Democratic strongholds in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolises.


Pennsylvania, 1996 presidential election.

With incumbent Bill Clinton poised to win comfortably weeks before election day, Senator Bob Dole does not seriously contest Pennsylvania. Democrats improve in the east and weaken in the west, while Mr. Clinton sails to a comfortable victory.


Pennsylvania, 1992 presidential election

Governor Bill Clinton romps to a nine-point margin, following three straight Republican victories in the state. Mr. Clinton milks Democratic strength in the industrial southwest for everything it’s worth, winning 2-1 margins in a number of counties. More ominously for Republicans, President George H. W. Bush barely loses the Philadelphia suburbs – the first Republican to do so since Senator Barry Goldwater (and before him President William Taft, in 1912).

(Note: Credit goes to the NYT for these amazing images.)



Analyzing Swing States: Virginia, Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It is the second section of two focusing on Northern Virginia, and focuses on analyzing the structural foundation behind NoVa’s Democratic shift. The fifth part can be found here.



In many ways, Northern Virginia represents the best America has to offer. As wealthy, diverse, and rapidly growing suburb, it offers the very essence of the American Dream.

Demographically, Northern Virginia is one of those rare places whose racial composition is representative of America as a whole. In Fairfax County today blacks constitute 9.4% of the population, Hispanics 13.5% (nationally the numbers are 12.3% and 15.1%, respectively). Asians come in at 15.8%, a higher number than the national average.

As has been much noted, Northern Virginia is getting more diverse. In Fairfax County, for instance, the numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have all increased since the 2000 census – which counted blacks as 8.6%, Hispanics as 11.0%, and Asians as 13.0% of the population.

These changes are especially striking in exurban NoVa. Loudoun County, 2000 was 5.9% Asian and 5.3% Hispanic. Since then those numbers have more than doubled; from 2006-2008, the census estimated Loudoun as 12.3% Asian and 10.1% Hispanic (blacks constituted 7.8% of the county’s population).

Finally, Northern Virginia is very, very, very rich. The median household income in both Fairfax and Loudoun exceeds $100,000; a 2008 census study estimated them as the two wealthiest counties in America (see page 13). More than one-third of individuals over 25 in Arlington County hold graduate degrees, compared with less than 10% of Americans at large. Life expectancy is the highest in the nation.

The Future

Although Northern Virginia continues become more diverse, it is unclear how much more Democratic it can get. Suburbs rarely give a party more than 60% of the vote, and 65% seems to be the upper limit for Democrats. Given that President Barack Obama won 60.12% in Fairfax County, Democrats appear to be near this line.

On the other hand, the suburban metropolis that does break this rule (the Bay Area) has a lot in common with Northern Virginia. Like NoVa, the Bay Area is rich, diverse, and growing. But the Bay is also composed of a majority of minorities; this will not happen anytime soon in Northern Virginia.

Moreover, Virginia is missing the one piece that would truly make it a Democratic stronghold. Democratic suburbs like NoVa often surround poor, astonishingly Democratic cities. The good news is that NoVa does surround such a city – and that city gave Democrats 92.46% of its vote in 2008. The bad news is that the city’s name is Washington D.C.

All this may not matter, however, if Northern Virginia continues its rapid growth. Today the exurbs in Loudoun and Prince Williams are the main sites of development, while Fairfax County’s growth appears to have slowed down. This translates into many more voters:

As Loudoun and Prince Williams become more diverse, moreover, they are been voting ever more Democratic. In 2000 Loudoun voted Republican by a 8.25% margin; in 2008 it voted Democratic by a 15.22% margin.

If Northern Virginia continues growing at this rate – and voting Democratic by a 3-2 margin – Virginia may eventually change into a Democratic-leaning state. This will probably be balanced out as other Democratic states naturally turn Republican-leaning. Nevertheless, adding NoVa to the old Democratic base leaves the Democratic Party in strong shape. That traditional base will be the subject of the next post.



Analyzing Swing States: Virginia, Part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It is the first section of two focusing on Northern Virginia. The fourth part can be found here.


A vast and growing suburban metropolis, Northern Virginia has become increasingly important in Virginia politics. There, demographic changes have imperiled Republican dominance of Virginia.

To illustrate the exceptional nature of this movement, compare the two elections below. Here is 2000:

Governor George W. Bush has won Virginia by a comfortable 8.1% margin, carving out the traditional Republican coalition of rural and suburban Virginia. As this picture indicates, Virginia Democrats in 2000 really don’t have a base of support, except perhaps the heavily black southeast parts of the state.

Eight years later, Northern Virginia has transformed:

Before digging into the dynamics of modern NoVa, it is worth exploring its past behavior to gain a sense of context.

A History

Northern Virginia was not always as populous as it is today; well into the twentieth century, it remained a rural (and heavily Democratic) backwater. In the 1940 presidential election, for instance, less than 10,000 people voted in Arlington County.

Growth began in the 1940s, however, driven by an ever-expanding federal government. The inner-ring suburbs in Arlington started expanding first, followed by Fairfax County in the 1950s. Like many other white and wealthy suburbs, Northern Virginia leaned Republican during this era.

Unlike some suburbs, however, Northern Virginia never fell in love with Republicanism. In Fairfax County, Republican presidential candidates only once took more than 65% of the vote (in 1972) – something which would regularly happen in a place like Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond.

Change first began in the 1980s, when inner-ring suburbs such as Arlington started voting Democratic. In the 2000 map, one sees Arlington County as the lonely blue bubble to the right of Fairfax County.

By 2000, as the graph above indicates, change was coming to the suburban communities in Fairfax. In 2004 the county voted Democratic by a 7.30% margin, which should have been a warning sign to Republicans. A mere two years later, it powered Democratic candidate Jim Webb to a narrow victory over incumbent Senator George Allen (he won the county by 18.9%). In 2008 Fairfax – well, just look at the map to see what happened in 2008.

In just eight short years, Northern Virginia has turned from a Republican-leaning suburb into a fundamental part of the Democratic base. Virginia has changed from a red state into a purple one, due mainly (but not entirely) to Northern Virginia.

The next post will explore Northern Virginia today – in order to get a sense of how this has happened.



Polarization: Past and Present

A number of commentators have lamented increasing polarization in Washington. Conventional wisdom has it that America is as divided and partisan as it ever has been. Sectional divisions are tearing this country apart and preventing problems such as the deficit from being addressed; the differences between blue America and red America, in this view, are rapidly approaching crisis point.

There is some justice to this view. Polarization has probably increased, by a number of metrics, over the past few elections. Indeed, I previously noted something to this exact effect.

Let’s take another look, however, at the hypothesis, using a different type of measurement. We will consider the composition of the House of Representatives, specifically examining partisan divisions by state. Do blue states elect Republican representatives, and vice versa? In a polarized nation, this would probably not be the case.

Here is a map of a House with a Republican majority:

This House was the result of 2002 congressional elections. Republicans had done well in the wake of 9/11, and they had a 232-201 majority.

In the map there are relatively few states with 80-100% of representatives from one party. Blue states elect Republicans; red states elect Democrats. Moreover; for some states (e.g. Delaware, the Dakotas) it is mathematically impossible to be less than 100% Democratic or Republican.

Here is the House today:

This is a fascinating map in that it almost perfectly matches the 2008 electoral college. One sees the Republican corridor of strength in the South and Mountain West. Most of the map is blue since Democrats have a 255-178 majority, the result of two previous Democratic landslides.

Let’s move back several decades:

The date is 1960; President John Kennedy has just been elected. Democrats hold a 258-177 majority, almost identical to that today.

There are a lot more “one-party states” compared to the current map. Sectional division is far more pronounced; there is a line between North and South that simply does not exist in today’s House. In 1960 – especially in the still-standing Solid South – blue states generally did not elect Republicans, and vice versa.

Polarization grows even worse if one goes back further.

Here is 1894:

Republicans have just won 130(!) seats. They hold a 254 to 93 majority.

In this incredible map, there are only six states with congressional delegations less than 80-100% from one party. In it one can literally trace the battlefields of the Civil War.

This is real polarization, the results of a nation so divided it had literally torn itself in two. This is the type of polarization that results from scars so deep that they took more than a century to heal.

Perhaps today America is indeed growing more polarized, more divided into red states and blue states. But when one compares the present situation to past ones, there is literally no comparison. The United States has a long way to go before it gets as polarized as it did during the latter half of the 19th century.




Advertise Blogads