A blue, not angry, Virginia opted for Clinton

Dave Ress
Contact Reporterdress@dailypress.com

Virginians seemed less peeved about the state of the nation than the states that turned out to be battlegrounds, which may be why voters here didn't provide an Election Day surprise.

A booming Northern Virginia economy is one big reason the coalition of African-Americans, millennials and suburbanites that President Barack Obama's campaign built here in 2008 and maintained in 2012, delivered the state for Hillary Clinton despite a sour political climate, Virginia political scientists said Wednesday.

"The Obama coalition pretty much held together," said John McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary, noting that Clinton's nearly 2 million votes was down by only about 60,000 from Obama's 2012 total, while Trump's 1.7 million was off by about 95,000 from Mitt Romney's vote that year. Overall, turnout edged up 2 percent, though the increase went to minor party candidates.

McGlennon, a Democratic member of the Board of Supervisors in James City County, where Republican votes this year fell by about 4,700 compared to 2012, said Trump turned off many suburban voters who normally tend to vote for GOP candidates.

Distaste for Trump in the Beltway suburbs of Northern Virginia fueled a 14 percent surge in support for Clinton compared to Obama's 2012 vote and a stunning 27 percent slump in GOP votes, political scientists say.

"Two words: government workers," said Ed Lynch, a political scientist at Hollins University and former chairman of the Roanoke County Republican committee.

Unlike Wisconsin and Michigan, where turnout slumped, but where Trump stunned pundits with unexpected victories, Virginia's decline in turnout for the major party candidates did not include a shift of voters from the Democratic column to the GOP, McGlennon said.

In those states, as in the key battleground state of Ohio, Clinton's vote fell sharply from Obama's total — by 11 percent to 14 percent — while Trump won thousands more votes than Romney had. In Ohio, his gain exceeded 220,000 votes.

One reason Virginia did not follow is the steady drain of population and economic life in the Republican stronghold of rural Southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and the Southside counties strung along the North Carolina state line.

"Rural Virginians are leaving, going up to find jobs in Northern Virginia ... people aren't moving from rural Ohio to suburban or urban Ohio; the whole state isn't doing well," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.

As rural Virginia's share of the state's population and wealth shrinks, anger and upset fueled a surge in support for Trump, but unlike similar distress in the Rust Belt states, it was not enough to swing the state to the New York billionaire, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

"Virginia's just not the same kind of industrial economy," he said. "With exports from the port, high tech, tourism on the coast ... the economic diversity Virginians take for granted makes things very different here."

Overall, turnout was down nationwide, leaving open the question of whether Trump brought in large numbers of disaffected Americans who hadn't been bothering to vote, Farnsworth said. But the battlegrounds of Florida and Pennsylvania saw a jump in turnout, and one that saw gains for both Clinton and Trump over Obama and Romney. North Carolina, which like those two states went for Trump, also saw a turnout increase, as well as the kind of shift to the GOP seen in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

At William and Mary, McGlennon thinks Trump's upset electoral college victory, while lagging in the popular vote, more generally reflects simple party loyalty.

CNU's Kidd said his university's student pollsters, who were pretty much spot-on with Clinton's margin in Virginia, had found Republicans and Republican-leaning independents tend to firmly declare their intentions later in the campaign season than other voters.

To account for that, which he first noticed in the last-minute surge for GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, he has directed the students to ask a follow-up question of undecided voters: If you were in the voting booth now and had to decide, who would you vote for?

He thinks asking that question captures Republican-leaning voters more accurately.

But more than party loyalty seemed to move many voters in Southwest Virginia and Southside, the area of the state where Trump added to the Republican vote total in the same way as the Rust Belt states, McGlennon said.

Voters in lower average income precincts in those counties, like voters in high income Northern Virginia precincts, were the only demographic group seeing increased turnout in 2016, an analysis by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project showed.

Generally, turnout in precincts dominated by key elements of the Obama coalition — African Americans, college students and millennials — slumped by more than elsewhere, the analysis showed.

Even so, the big numbers in Northern Virginia are hard to overcome, said John Fredericks, the Hampton Roads radio host who was chairman of Trump's Virginia campaign.

"I don't see how Republicans in this state are ever going to win another statewide race," he said. "It's a blue state."

McGlennon isn't so sure, especially when looking ahead to next year's state elections for governor and the House of Delegates. That could be a key early test of a Trump presidency, since the odd-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey immediately following a presidential race have long been viewed as an early signal of how happy Americans are with the White House.

But one thing McGlennon is sure of: "In Virginia, the red areas are getting redder and the blue ones, bluer."

Daily Press reporter Travis Fain contributed to this report. Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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