Why Obama May Be Safe in Virginia

The president's chances to win this Southern swing state look surprisingly strong, even as other states trend away from him.


HAMPTON, Virginia -- At first glance, this former Confederate stronghold might seem like one of the harder swing states for the president to hang onto in 2012.

When Obama won Virginia in 2008, it was the first victory there for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. But Democrats' good fortune in the Old Dominion was short-lived. Just a year later -- the state holds its elections in odd years -- a Republican, Bob McDonnell, won the governorship in a landslide; the GOP made more gains in 2010's congressional elections. In the early gaming of the electoral map, Virginia looked a lot like its Southern neighbor, North Carolina -- a 2008 anomaly that would likely revert to its true color, red, in 2012.

But Obama has remained surprisingly resilient in Virginia. The last poll, conducted earlier this month by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, had him up 8 points on Mitt Romney here, 50 percent to 42 percent, and Real Clear Politics' aggregate of polls since May has the president up 3 points. That's better than Obama is averaging in Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and even Michigan -- a state John McCain gave up on months before the 2008 election, but which a series of recent polls show to be in play for Romney.

As Obama began a two-day, five-city swing through Virginia on Friday, Democratic and Republican strategists alike told me the same thing: While Virginia is still likely to be competitive down to the wire, Obama may have reason to feel more confident here than other swing states, particularly in the Midwest. There are two major reasons: economics and demographics.

* Economics: The unemployment rate in Virginia is 5.6 percent, tied for the ninth lowest in the country. Republicans, starting with McDonnell, would like to take credit for the state's rosy jobs picture, but the truth is that the state is mostly insulated from economic vicissitudes by the large number of its citizens who work for the federal government and the military. In recent days, the Romney camp has rolled out a new line of attack that seeks to blame Obama for the looming defense cuts set to automatically take place at the end of the year if Congress doesn't act. But there are a couple of problems with this line: First, it's pretty easy for Obama to put the blame back on Congress, which approved the so-called sequester on a bipartisan basis to begin with, and which, you may have heard, is not popular. Second, it's essentially criticizing the president for wanting to cut government spending and reduce public-sector employment -- a criticism that conflicts with some major GOP talking points.

* Demographics: While the Rust Belt states keep getting older and whiter, and losing population overall, Virginia's population is growing, getting younger and more diverse. One plugged-in Republican I spoke to, who thinks Virginia is rapidly slipping from Romney's grasp, said that's the crucial difference between the Republican sweeps of 2009-10 and this year's election: Minorities, particularly black voters, will turn out for Obama. "An off-year election is just not representative of anything," this Republican said. "Obama got 20 percent African-American turnout in 2008, and most of the polling that has shown Romney close here assumes it will be closer to the 16 percent in 2009, which is of course ridiculous. I've had conversations with the Romney people here and they really only think they need to shift 10,000-12,000 votes to win the state, when I think it's about double that." In addition to the sizable black vote, Virginia also has growing shares of Hispanics and Asians.

At Obama's stops in the Tidewater cities of Virginia Beach and Hampton on Friday, the resilience and enthusiasm of his African-American base were evident. At each stop, about three-quarters of the crowd that filled the bleachers of the high-school auditorium was black. There was a revival quality to the proceedings, as Obama's stump speech was interrupted with call-and-response shouts of "Amen!" and "That's right!" (Nonetheless, it was Sen. Mark Warner, introducing the president, who had the best line: "In 2008, we changed the guard," he said. "In 2012, we guard the change!")

Later, in Roanoke, Obama told the crowd, "If I win Virginia, I'm going to get four more years. That I can say with some confidence." The good news for the president is that Virginia may be within his grasp. The bad news is, with states that weren't supposed to be swing states trending away from him -- even supposedly sure bets for the Democrat like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania seem to be tightening these days -- winning Virginia may not guarantee another term.