Why Virginia may tilt to Obama

A long-time red state is now a tossup due to fast-growing exurbs.

Gary C. Knapp/AP
Battleground: Sen. John McCain campaigns with Hank Williams, Jr. in Virginia Beach, Va.

At the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in Virginia’s Prince William County, Chris Casey’s house isn’t hard to find: It’s the one with the big Obama banner draped across the front porch.

Inside, his living room looks like a campaign office. Stacks of literature are divided into two piles – “Persuasion,” for the regular voters who are leaning toward Democratic nominee Barack Obama, and “Sporadic,” for the sometime voters who need a nudge just to turn out.

Mr. Casey has lived here for 18 years, but suddenly, without moving, he’s in a swing state. For the first time since 1964, Virginia is threatening to vote Democratic for president. If it does, that could hand the election to Mr. Obama. So Casey has joined the legions of Democrats out nights and weekends, knocking on doors, chatting with voters, and handing out literature.

When he finds a willing listener, his message is blunt: “If Prince William County goes blue, then Virginia goes blue, and if Virginia goes blue, then we get the White House.”

That may be oversimplified, but the importance of Prince William County – a fast-growing exurb of Washington, D.C. – cannot be overstated. Prince William, along with neighboring Loudoun County, has seen explosive population growth so far this decade: in Prince William, a 37 percent increase as of 2007, and in Loudoun, a 58 percent increase as of 2006.

Many of the new residents are from other parts of the country and the world, not locked into the traditions of Virginia.

Both are now among the highest-income counties in the country, cutting into the predominance of working-class Republican voters.

In addition, the housing downturn and high gas prices have hit the outer suburbs especially hard, making this fertile turf for Obama. In Prince William, the median price for a single-family detached home has dropped 41 percent in the last year, as foreclosed properties have flooded the market.

George W. Bush won Prince William County in both 2000 and 2004, but now Obama has the edge. An Oct. 14 survey by Politico/Insider Advantage shows Obama leading Republican nominee John McCain there 50 percent to 42 percent. In the age 30-44 group, Obama is ahead 58 percent to 33 percent, and among independents he leads 55 percent to 25 percent.

But there are plenty of other parts of the state where Senator McCain can make up that deficit, and observers in Virginia say the state will be close.

“Don’t be fooled by that CNN poll,” which showed Obama up in Virginia by 10 points, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, who faults the methodology of that and other polls that show Obama with a sizable lead here. “If Obama wins Virginia, it will be by a point or two or three. It’s very competitive.”

Mr. Bush won Virginia by eight points in both 2000 and 2004, and there’s no way the state will swing Democratic by a similar margin at the presidential level in just four years, he says. But Virginia has been trending “purple” for a long time. Democrats have been winning statewide all decade, including two governor’s races and the Senate race in 2006 that saw Democrat Jim Webb narrowly beat the incumbent, George Allen, after Mr. Allen was caught on video uttering a racially tinged word: macaca.

Former Gov. Mark Warner (D) is expected to easily replace retiring Republican Sen. John Warner (no relation) on Nov. 4. But what gives Obama a chance here is the economy and general unpopularity of the Republican Party. “If this weren’t a good Democratic year, Virginia wouldn’t be a tossup,” says Mr. Sabato.

Obama has also benefited from the competitive Democratic primary here last February, which forced him to set up campaign operations all over the state and identify local talent and volunteers. The Democrats’ “Campaign for Change” has 49 offices around the state, versus 21 McCain/GOP “victory centers.”

But the McCain campaign is talking confidently. “We have a very aggressive voter-outreach program,” says McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. “We have always maintained that Virginia would be a battleground state, and we have taken nothing for granted.”

And even if Northern Virginia – accounting for one-third of the state’s population – goes heavily for Obama, McCain can make up the deficit in other parts of the state.

“There are three metro areas in Virginia, and whoever wins the state has to win two of those,” says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

Obama will clearly take northern Virginia, and McCain will clearly take the area around the capital, Richmond, he says.

“The real battleground is Hampton Roads,” Mr. Kidd says, referring to the coastal region of southeast Virginia, which has a large African-American and military population. The area also has many younger voters, including college and university students who could help Obama.

Back in Prince William County, Chris Casey is working off a list of prescreened potential Obama voters. To those who say they’re definitely voting for Obama, he suggests voting early, given the predictions of long lines on Election Day. But some on his list remain undecided.

Koeen Madsen, an assistant principal at an elementary school, says she’ll probably vote for Obama, but McCain’s running mate has given her pause. “Sarah Palin is a breath of fresh air,” says Ms. Madsen. “She’s inexperienced, but she seems real. She talks like the rest of us.”

But for another voter in this suburban enclave of townhouses, Governor Palin is a net negative. “I don’t like Obama, because his running mate has more experience than he does,” says Brandon Hall, who works for Media General. “With McCain, it’s the running mate that’s the problem.”

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