By John McGlennon, professor of Government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Virginia's role in the selection of the President of the United States
has been both predictable and symmetrical in the 20th Century. Between
1900 and 1950, the Commonwealth's voters supported the Democratic nominee
for President in every election but one. Between 1952 and 1996, every
Republican Presidential candidate but one has carried the Old Dominion,
and recent public opinion polls suggest that the 2000 election is likely
to end the century the same way.
Since the 1960s, Virginia has rarely attracted the attention of Presidential candidates, with Republicans counting its electoral votes as secure and Democrats finding other, more appealing targets for their campaign resources. Even in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's appeal to regional pride carried him to victory in every other state of the Confederacy, Virginia narrowly cast its lot with Republican Gerald Ford.
In most Presidential election years, Virginians have been peripheral to the nomination contests and the general election. Occasionally, the parties do make an effort in the state, such as in 1996, when President Clinton made a brief foray into Northern Virginia for a pre-election rally when polls showed him within a few points of Senator Robert Dole. In the closing days of the 1988 campaign, George Bush's campaign sensed a clear victory, and wanted to keep national attention away from their controversial Vice-Presidential candidate, J. Danforth Quayle. The Indiana Senator spent the final weekend of the campaign stumping in Virginia, which the Republicans knew they were going to carry handily.
Periodically, Virginians have lamented their lack of influence in the Presidential nomination contest. In most years, Virginia's parties both select their Presidential nominating convention delegates in a complicated "caucus" or "mass meeting" system. Even in years with lively contests for party nominations, only 50,000 or fewer partisans show up to pick delegates from the state's cities and counties to attend district and state conventions which select the national convention delegations.
In 1988, as part of a coordinated effort by Southern Democrats to increase their leverage in the Presidential contest, Virginia joined a number of other states in establishing March "Super Tuesday" primary. Democrats allocated their convention delegates based on the primary, which produced a plurality win for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who received as many votes as Senator Albert Gore and Governor Michael Dukakis combined. Republicans used the primary as a non-binding preference vote, which Vice President Bush won with a majority. Fewer than one registered voter in four participated, and Virginia abandoned the primary before the 1992 election.
Republican lawmakers have revived the primary for the 2000 Presidential election, and have set the date for February 29. Democrats showed little interest in participating in the optional primary, and in any case would have been precluded from using it to allocate delegates under national party rules. The Democrats prohibit the selection of delegates prior to March except for Iowa and New Hampshire. The "open primary" in Virginia also prevents the party from restricting participation to Democrats, a necessity under party rules. The Republican had the same problem with an open primary, but the state's lawmakers permitted parties to require that voters take a loyalty oath in order to participate in the primary.
The State Board of Election initially approved a loyalty oath for Republican primary voters, requiring them to promise to support GOP candidates in the November election before being allowed to cast a primary ballot. One of the two Republican members of the Board changed her mind, however, and along with the sole Democrat, voted to allow a less restrictive loyalty oath, requiring primary voters only to promise not to participate in any other party's nomination process. Efforts to restrict participation in the state-run and financed primary may still see legal challenges, as voters have previously expressed irritation at partisan attempts to restrict their right to cast ballots in party contests.
In 1999, both parties have seen an unusually high level of activity among the Presidential candidates, but little of it is due to the primary. Senator Bill Bradley was the guest speaker at the state Democrats' premier fund-raising event, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Vice President Gore has been actively recruiting party leaders for his campaign to win votes at the party caucuses in the Spring. But the more vigorous activity has been in fund-raising for the candidates themselves, as Texas Governor George W. Bush, Gore and others have pursued dollars to fuel their campaigns from among wealthy Washington-area, Richmond and Tidewater donors. In addition, several candidates have taken advantage of Virginia's loose campaign finance laws to establish political action committees to fund their preliminary activities prior to becoming announced candidates.
Though Virginia would still be coUnited as a likely Republican state in 2000, the performance of President Clinton in 1996 demonstrates the potential for the state to be competitive. Though he did lose the Old Dominion, Clinton's 45.2 percent showing brought him to within 2 percent of Senator Dole's plurality win. Increasingly, the ability to sway suburban voters in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, which contain the bulk of the state's population, will be critical to success here. In addition, Virginia is sure to see one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in 2000, with incumbent Democrat Charles Robb in a difficult race to hold off former Governor George Allen. This contest is likely to attract national attention and increased voter interest, which could produce unexpected results.