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Examining the Presidential Campaign Map, Battleground Virginia

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
On the campaign trail, President Obama and Mitt Romney both stumped Wednesday in hotly contested Virginia. Gwen Ifill, USA Today's Susan Page and NewsHour Political Editor Christina Bellantoni discuss the candidates' efforts in battleground states ahead of their parties' conventions and the November presidential election.
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GWEN IFILL: We turn now to politics with a look at the states that will see the most action during the presidential campaign.

Mitt Romney stumped today in Virginia and he plans two more visits to the state this week. And President Obama heads to Virginia twice this week, including Saturday’s reelection kickoff in Richmond.

For more on how the battle is being waged in Virginia and beyond, we are joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni.

Welcome, ladies.

Let’s start by talking about why Virginia. It’s not just because it’s across the river from Washington.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, it is close, but that’s not why.

Think about how Virginia has changed. The last time it went — President Obama carried it four years ago, but the previous time it had gone Democratic was in 1964. But this is a different kind of state, once a Republican bastion, now very much in play with all those college-educated white voter voters in the Northern Virginia suburbs, a growing number of Hispanic voters, and very much one of the most important swing states this time around.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, let’s talk about what happened — Susan.

Christina, let’s talk about what happened in 2008. Tell us — break it down for us, exactly how President Obama won in Virginia.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

Well, this was no accident that he won in Virginia. They campaigned very hard for him there. First off, his first general election rally was there, and his last general election rally was there before election night. He won by seven points in part by winning the Northern Virginia suburbs and these ex-burbs, which are very close to Washington.

It’s a growing population. It’s that sort of class of voter that he tends to win across the country. But he also won the urban centers and he was able to win in the military regions in the Southeast, which are very plentiful. And this is where other candidates have been able to target, and that’s sort of the swing area.

GWEN IFILL: But then a year later, Bob McDonnell, who is now the governor, a Republican, managed to win. How did he turn the state the other way?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes. So this was traditional, a big, big stomping win for Bob McDonnell in this case, but he was able to win those Northern Virginia suburbs, which is very important, particularly for Republicans because. . .

GWEN IFILL: As we can see here on the map, yes.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah. Republicans don’t tend to win in that area. It’s a more Democratic area. It’s where the Democratic members of Congress are concentrated. So being able to win up there is very crucial, which is why Mitt Romney was there today. He’s very much targeting that swing suburban voter up there.

GWEN IFILL: Okay.

So the swing continued then in 2010. The midterm elections, where we saw across the nation so many shifts happen, happened in Virginia as well.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah.

This Republican wave really came through Virginia, where you lost three Democratic seats that flipped over to Republican seats. And that started in the very conservative area in Southwest Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: Show me what we’re looking at.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: That’s the Ninth Congressional District in the southwest corner there. That was Rick Boucher’s district. He lost.

Then the Fifth District, which is sort of the Central Virginia — it starts in Lynchburg and goes south. That was a seat where a Democratic member who had won with the Obama wave in 2008 was swept out. And then Hampton Roads, this military region in the southeast.

So these are all very crucial areas, and the Democrats are down to three seats in Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: So we know what the state of the state is in Virginia. What is the state of the strategy of either of these campaigns to try to win it?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, one of the great things about covering presidential politics is you don’t have to listen to what campaigns tell you. You can watch where they spend their money and they spend their time.

And, as you know, we’re seeing both the candidates, Romney here today, in a different part of the state tomorrow with the governor by his side. We see President Obama here on Friday, and then back again on Saturday. You know, if you want ton where the Obama campaign believes this election elect will be won or lost, look at the two states that he’s going to go to announce his campaign, Ohio, maybe the quintessential swing state, a state no Republican has won the White House without covering — carrying Ohio, and Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: And they’re already spending money, as you mentioned, on advertising on the air.

SUSAN PAGE: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: We know, a lot of money or. . .

SUSAN PAGE: A lot of money. And, in fact, Restore Our Future, which is the super PAC that is supporting Romney, announced today $4.3 million in ad purchases in several states, including Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: Christina, let’s skip through of the other target states, because it’s not just Virginia. Virginia is just the tip of what may be the deciding iceberg, as it were.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right. And there’s a lot of battleground states we’re going to be seeing action in.

But we have highlighted a couple today, starting with New Hampshire, where this is a perennial battleground state. Republicans will try to win here in a presidential year. And it has flipped with several different elections.

And an example, if you look at the 2010 Senate race, Kelly Ayotte was able to win by 23 points. But along with that, the two congressional seats flipped, which had flipped the year before that.

GWEN IFILL: She’s the Republican senator. . .

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Now Republican senator, yeah. And so that’s one that we’re looking at.

Then you have got New Mexico, which is that crucial area in the Southwest that President Obama’s campaign is very much targeting. He swept the Southwest in 2008. And in 2010, this is another example where you can look at Susana Martinez. She’s a Republican who was able to win the governor’s race there. There had been a Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, before, and a congressional seat flipped.

So you really start to see the trends. And that’s why Republicans are trying to target there. The Democrats are feeling pretty confident there. Then, of course, Pennsylvania, which is another example of this working-class state, where you have got a lot of voters — Susan and I have talked about this, about that working-class voter that has not necessarily warmed up to President Obama that the Romney campaign really thinks they can target.

In 2010, you saw the Republican, Tom Corbett, win this governor’s race by nine points, and several congressional seats flip, plus the Senate race. So you have had several big changes. And that’s what they’re trying to capitalize on.

GWEN IFILL: Well, not only are at least two of those three people you just mentioned on the vice presidential speculation list for the Republicans, but it also is part of the map for the Electoral College, isn’t it?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Absolutely. And on our Vote 2012 Map Center, you can take a look at — you start with the base 2008 map that President Obama won, and then you just look at these states that we have talked about, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Mexico.

And you’ve got 42 electoral votes up for grabs right there. Now, based on these numbers, President Obama would win reelection. But when you talk about some of the other changes in the state, it’s going to be an interesting, close race.

GWEN IFILL: Are these campaigns actually looking at Electoral College votes already?

SUSAN PAGE: Oh, yes, absolutely.

And you don’t see them wasting time in states that either they’re guaranteed to win or guaranteed to lose. All the action is going to be in about 12 states, including the four you just mentioned, because they do have Electoral College strategies in mind.

And, interesting, you look at those four states, all four of them had Democratic governors in 2008. Three of them have Republican governors going into 2012. And that is one thing that gives the Romney people some hope that these are states that they can win back.

GWEN IFILL: And, Susan, what are the issues which are resonating with voters in these states? You’re not swinging to and fro just on a whim. There’s something that’s driving this.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think the economy is the issue for every kind of voter in America.

And when — when Gov. Romney made his appearance in Northern Virginia this morning, I was there. He was talking about helping small businesses, helping job creation. He was also surrounded by women small business owners, an effort to address the gender gap that has been a problem for him.

The economy — also education, that’s another thing Gov. Romney talked about today. And it’s what the focus — it’s the focus of President Obama’s visit on Friday to a Northern Virginia high school.

GWEN IFILL: And they’re spending a lot of time on college campuses as well, both of them.

When you talk to voters as you go out to these campaign events and you see the people they’re talking to, the people who come in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week to a political event, what are they curious about? What are they — what are they telling you?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I talked to some voters today at the Romney event, and some of them were Republican voters that had been a little slow to warm to Romney.

I talked to a Gingrich voter, another voter who thought, was Romney conservative enough? They seem to be falling in line behind him. Interestingly, several of the voters I talked to in Northern Virginia today were Obama voters four years ago.

That surprised me a little because these kind of events usually get true believers there. I mean, that’s a sign that there has been some erosion for President Obama in these suburbs.

GWEN IFILL: They are curious or they are switching?

SUSAN PAGE: They are switching. And the voters in that category — now, it’s just a couple voters. It’s not any kind of scientific sample, but the issue they talk about, it’s the economy, it’s jobs, and it’s the federal debt and deficit.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll be watching all of those issues, Susan Page, all year long, Christina Bellantoni. Thank you both very much.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Thank you.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Online, you can use our Vote 2012 Map Center to try out different fall election scenarios for yourself. You will also find demographic data on who will be voting and where.