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Battleground States|By Michael Nelson, August 29, 2016

Mark J. Rozell is Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, as well as holds the Hazel Chair in Public Policy. His many books on the American presidency and southern politics include Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics, coauthored with Clyde Wilcox. What follows is the text of an email interview on Virginia politics today. 

Virginia was arguably the most Republican state in the South in 1976, when it was the only one not to vote for Jimmy Carter for president. In recent elections it seems to have become the least Republican state. What happened to bring about this transformation? Is Virginia’s electorate changing in ways that advantage either party?

Virginia voted GOP at the presidential level in every election from 1952 to 2004, with the exception of the 1964 LBJ landslide (and even then, barely so). It was the only state of the old confederacy not to support native son southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even during an era of Democratic dominance at the state level until the 1990s, Virginia reliably voted for Republican presidential candidates. The nation’s previously most Republican-voting state in presidential elections has now swung Democratic in two consecutive contests (2008 and 2012).

Several factors are responsible for this change. Most important is the shifting demographics with vast increases in the populations of the more liberal urban corridor - especially the Washington, DC suburbs of northern Virginia – as well as in minority groups that vote heavily Democratic. In the latest two presidential elections the African-American turnout rate has achieved parity (2008) and even slightly exceeded (2012) the rate of white turnout. Although some dismissed this as a uniquely Obama-related phenomenon, African-American turnout for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2013, also was impressively high. The Latino portion of the state’s electorate has grown significantly and with Republicans perceived as the anti-immigrant party, this vote has gone overwhelmingly Democratic in the latest elections. Finally, there is the widespread perception in the state that its Republican Party is centered in the tea party and the evangelical right. As the state population is becoming more highly educated, and cultural differences between the parties drive better-educated voters to the Democratic Party, Republicans have become more and more marginalized. Consider one of the fastest growing segments of the Virginia electorate: college educated whites who used to be reliable Republican voters.

In the latest two presidential elections, among the eleven states of the old confederacy, support for Republican nominees among college-educated whites lagged about 7 percentage points below support from non-college educated whites. But in Virginia the percentages were 11 points in 2008 and a remarkable 17 points in 2012. Voting among educated whites in Virginia resembles Delaware and Maryland, not the Carolinas or Georgia.

Republicans appear in trouble in Virginia, especially as Donald Trump’s numbers here lag. The key for the party is whether it can broaden its appeal beyond the evangelical and tea party base that cannot win high turnout elections here any more. If the party looks north to Maryland its supporters can see that Republican candidates for governor there in recent years – Robert Ehrlich and the popular incumbent Larry Hogan - have achieved electoral success in a very Blue state with policy and rhetorical moderation and an emphasis on technocratic good government values that appeal to educated white moderates. The same could happen in Virginia, but it is going to require a shifting in much of the thinking in the GOP.

The GOP though continues to do well in midterm House elections and in off-year state legislative races. When turnout is down significantly in these cycles, the party formula of relying on tea party and religious right enthusiasm produces far better outcomes because turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies tends to be way down.

Compared with other recent Republican presidential nominees, are there any particular advantages or disadvantages that Donald Trump brings to the race? How about Clinton—any particular advantages or disadvantages that she brings to the race compared with other recent Democratic nominees?

With his numbers lagging badly in most polls in the state, it is hard to think of any advantages that Trump has here in comparison to other recent GOP nominees. He does have the very strong support of the tea party and the evangelical conservative wings of the party. He spent a lot of time cultivating major evangelical leaders in the state and most prominently received the endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University. There had of course been concerns about his ability to hold the support of religious conservatives given some of his past issue positions and three marriages, but currently he is polling about as well as Romney and McCain did at this stage with the white evangelical core of the religious right. But again, support among these groups cannot carry Virginia in presidential elections years, even though the calculation of course is very different in midterm election years).

Another Trump advantage may be that there is hidden support for him not showing up in the polls. In some statewide races in recent years, GOP nominees fared substantially better than suggested by their pre-election polls. These would include Ken Cuccinelli against McAuliffe for governor in 2013 and Ed Gillespie against popular incumbent senator Mark Warner in 2014. Most famously in Virginia is what became known as the “Wilder effect” – the phenomenon of a significant number of people lying to pollsters about their voting intentions in order to give what these voters thought was the socially acceptable answer. In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the nation’s first elected black governor by less than 7,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast, even though pre-election polls had him up in a landslide and exit polls actually had him winning huge. Today there is much speculation of a “reverse Wilder effect” with many Trump supporters not revealing their true voting intentions in order to be socially acceptable.

The big Clinton advantage is that the Democratic Party is much more united behind her than the GOP is for Trump. Further, evidence to date suggests that she is drawing the kind of overwhelming support and likely strong turnout from African-Americans and other Democratic-leaning minority voters who turned out so heavily for Obama in Virginia. Her advantage among women voters is enormous, and recent polls suggest that she is crushing Trump among Catholic voters in the state who make up significant portions of northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs. It appears that the once strong alliance between white evangelicals and Catholics that anchored the GOP’s many successes in the state in the 1990s has completely fractured with Trump’s nomination.

When is the last time that Virginia—once the mother of presidents—had someone on a national ticket? How much difference does it make that Hillary Clinton chose Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate?

Virginia, home of eight presidents, is on the national ticket of a major party for the first time since Woodrow Wilson. Kaine is a significant asset for the Democratic ticket here. He is a very popular political figure in the state, having served as Richmond’s Mayor, lieutenant governor, governor and senator, as well as DNC chair. A former missionary, he is a devout Catholic and when he ran for governor in 2005, his slogan on bumper stickers and signs—“Kaine: Faith in Action”—was a direct challenge to the Bush-era perception that faith-based voters belonged only to the Republican Party. His appeal among Catholic voters is a big asset for the Democratic ticket, as Donald Trump tries to make appeals to voters in manufacturing sector regions of the country, particularly the Midwest and upper-Midwest, where there are significant percentages of Catholic voters. Clinton’s current commanding lead among Catholics nationally may in part be driven or at least aided by the presence of Kaine on the ticket.

Is Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement statute unusually severe? Will Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to restore voting rights to about 200,000 ex-felons through executive action make a difference in how the state votes?

In July the state Supreme Court ruled the governor’s sweeping executive order unconstitutional. Consequently, the governor decided he would have his administration restore rights on a case-by-case basis to individuals who are eligible. To date, voting rights have been restored to about 13,000 former prisoners and it is impossible to project how many more will have their voting rights restored in time to register for this election (the deadline to register is October 17). Because the majority of the ex-felons with rights restored are African-American and presumably Democratic-leaning voters, clearly this action is beneficial to the party, although it is hard to project how many will register and actually vote. Other than an extremely close contested outcome in Virginia, the governor’s action doesn’t seem likely to make a difference to the outcome in the presidential race here. The GOP concern is the longer-term effects of eventual re-enfranchisement of potentially more than 200,000 people.

Has Virginia done better or worse economically than most other states? Will that make a difference on election day?

By most accounts, Virginia’s economy is stronger than those of most states. Governing magazine recently ranked Virginia #9 and a Forbes study with a different set of criteria ranked the state #15 in the nation. It stands to reason that Trump’s very recent ad campaign in Virginia and several other swing states emphasizing concerns about poor economic performance under Democratic leadership in Washington, DC, won’t resonate as strongly here as it may in some of the other states.

Nonetheless, the governor recently announced a surprisingly large state budget deficit in the second year of a biannual budget process, due to slower than projected job and income growth and thus reduced tax revenues. State employees will not receive a promised pay increase this year and state agencies will be subject to substantial cuts. Thus it is plausible that the current state budget situation will play into a Republican-led political narrative that the Democrats in Washington and Richmond have not been good stewards of the economy.