What Ever Happened to Baby Swing State Virginia?

During the 2004 presidential election, a grand total of zero dollars were spent in Virginia by both George Bush and John Kerry. Bush comfortably won Virginia in 2000 and 2004 by about eight points. Between 1952 and 2004, Virginia’s electoral votes were only given to one Democrat: LBJ in 1964. Obviously, a lot has changed over the past few election cycles. Virginia is now considered one of the preeminent swing states. In 2008, about 40 million dollars were spent on ads during the general election. In 2012, over 150 million dollars were spent on ads in Virginia on behalf of President Obama and Mitt Romney. Roughly 15 percent of all campaign spending was spent in Virginia.  As many of you can unfortunately remember, it was hard to avoid the roughly 170,000 TV ads aired in Virginia during the last general election. Going into 2016, it seemed like we would be up for more of the same. So why has the Old Dominion, with 13 electoral college votes on the line, been largely ignored this cycle?

Despite the clear importance of Virginia in 2008 and 2012, both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have largely ignored Virginia. The Trump campaign has spent roughly five million dollars since September. Clinton recently announced a small six-figure ad buy in Virginia. Clinton’s buy is largely seen as driving her supporters to the polls and not an indication the race is within Trump’s reach. The welcomed silence is not surprising. Pollsters show Clinton with a solid 6.5 percent lead over Trump. The New York Times Upshot model pegs Clinton’s chances to win Virginia at 96 percent. Even before the Trump campaign turned into a bigger and more robust dumpster fire a few weeks ago, Virginia was never close. Among the swing states in 2012, the least amount of money has been spent in Virginia. Generally, spending on ads is a good indicator of competitiveness. On the other hand, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, and New Hampshire are still central to both campaigns.

The  problem for Trump is his dismal performance in Northern Virginia. A recent poll conducted by the Republican polling firm, The Tarrance Group, found Clinton leading Trump statewide by nine points (47 to 39). However, in the Virginia-part of the D.C. media market, which is defined below, the poll found Clinton leading Trump by 27 points (57 to 30). Another recent poll, fielded by Christopher Newport University, found Clinton leading by 36 points (57 to 21) in Northern Virginia. For reference, President Obama beat Mitt Romney in the Virginia portion of the D.C. media market by a relatively paltry 13 points (55 to 42) en route to a statewide victory of 51 percent to Romney’s 47 percent. In the commonwealth’s other major regions, the CNU poll showed Clinton beating Trump 44 percent to 33 percent in the Richmond area and 40 percent to 33 percent in Hampton Roads. For reference, Trump is doing worse than Romney in the Richmond area, as President Obama won the Richmond media market by roughly four points. However, Trump is outperforming Romney in Hampton Roads, as President Obama beat Romney by almost 12 points in 2012. Trump does lead in Roanoke/Southwestern Virginia by 21 points (51 to 30).

In 2012, roughly 37 percent of Virginia’s 3.85 million votes were cast in Northern Virginia. The next two largest areas, Richmond and Hampton Roads, each hold 20 percent of Virginia’s voters.  So, Trump’s struggle in this vote rich region are the basis of his shortcomings statewide . Why is Trump doing exceptionally worse in Northern Virginia than past Republicans? Trump’s national struggles among minority, wealthy, and highly educated voters explain his low-energy performance in the D.C. area. Specifically, his poor performance among educated whites contributes mightily to his struggle.

For this article’s purpose, the counties/cities of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park, and Prince William will be grouped together. These jurisdictions make up roughly 80% of the population in Virginia’s section of the D.C. media market. These jurisdictions will henceforth be referred to as Northern Virginia.

It should be a bit redundant telling college students why recycling is so important, but given the percentages maybe not.

For one thing, Trump’s struggles in Northern Virginia are not new. During the GOP primary, Trump failed to win Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William counties, as well as the smaller cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church. He did narrowly win the much smaller Manassas and Manassas Park cities. The undercurrents responsible for Trump’s troubles in the primary are identical to those in the general election.

First, Northern Virginia voters are among the wealthiest voters in the country. Half of the nation’s wealthiest counties reside in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia. Loudoun County ranks 1st, Falls Church 2nd, Fairfax County 4th, Arlington County 7th, and Prince William County ranks 10th. Across Northern Virginia, the median household income is roughly $108,195, more than doubled the U.S. average of $53,482. Wealthy voters have largely eschewed Trump, in large part because Trump’s populist message does not resonate or galvanize them.

Voters in Northern Virginia are more bullish about the economy. In the Tarrance Group’s poll, 51 percent of respondents in Virginia section of the D.C. media market thought the economy was headed in the right direction, compared to 39 percent of statewide respondents and 26 percent of Roanoke/Southwestern Virginia voters. It has been well documented that Trump’s voters are much more pessimistic about the economy. Trump’s populist message doesn’t appeal to Northern Virginia voters given their positive view of the American economy.

Furthermore, Northern Virginia is also exceptionally diverse. Only 52.3 percent of residents are classified as non-Hispanic white, compared to the national average of 61.6 percent. Although the pool of registered voters is likely to be whiter than all residents, Northern Virginia voters still remains more diverse than all American voters. Trump’s popularity among non-white voters is exceptionally low. In a poll recently released by ABC News, only 14 percent of non-white voters declared support for Trump. In 2012 Romney received just 17 percent of non-white voters.

Moreover, Northern Virginia residents are highly educated. The fact is, there are not many “poorly educated voters,” the token of Trump’s affection, in Northern Virginia. Across Northern Virginia, just under 56 percent of Northern Virginians aged 25 or older hold at least a Bachelor’s degree, compared to just 29 percent nationally. As the whiz kids at 538 have demonstrated, Trump is doing worse with whites than Romney in 2012. Part of the explanation is Trump is doing worse among white educated voters. Among white college graduates, the ABC poll found Clinton beating Trump among white college grads by 16 points (52 to 36). Trump is on track to be the first Republican to lose college educated whites in 60 years. Romney won this group by 14 points in 2012.

All told, Trump’s lackluster performance in Virginia is largely driven by his struggles in Northern Virginia. Any gains among working-class white voters in the rural western and southwestern portion of Virginia for Trump are likely dwarfed by the more diverse metropolitan areas to the east. In many ways, the GOP’s national struggle is highlighted by their struggles in Virginia. In 2012, there were 673,690 more votes cast in Virginia than in 2004. Within Northern Virginia, there were 656,122 more votes cast in 2012 than in 2004. Turnout, meanwhile, remained unchanged from 2004 to 2012. Going forward, Republicans have to find a way to remain competitive among educated whites and minority voters in Northern Virginia. Fortunately for the GOP, Bob McDonnell’s landslide victory was only in 2009. But a lot has changed and will change going forward, especially in higher turnout elections.

So Virginia, relish the brief reprieve of 2016 because in 2017, with the Governor’s Mansion and potentially a Senate majority at stake, Virginia will be back in the limelight.


All electoral data used is from the U.S. Elections Atlas.

All demographic data used is from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Virginia portion of the D.C. media market is comprised of the following jurisdictions:Alexandria, Arlington, Clarke, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fairfax (city), Falls Church, Fauquier, Frederick, Fredericksburg, King George, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park, Page, Prince William, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Spotsylvania, Stafford, Warren, Westmoreland, and Winchester.

For those of you who have lives, the title is a reference to the excellent 1962 psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?— starring the incomparable Bette Davis and sensational Joan Crawford.


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