In past presidential races, Republicans could point to Virginia and safely assume they’d win the commonwealth’s electoral votes. Not since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has a Democratic candidate won Virginia.
Forty-four years later, things have changed in the Old Dominion. With just one week left before Election Day, the new competitiveness can be seen in both campaigns’ schedules.
On Monday, Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin visited three towns across Virginia — Leesburg, Fredericksburg and Salem — while Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama will speak Tuesday in Harrisonburg and Norfolk.
Mostly focusing on Obama’s tax plan Monday, Palin warned the crowd in Salem, “You know they’re coming after you folks.”
He may not be totally off the mark. If Obama takes Virginia, it could be a barometer for how other traditionally Republican states — Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana — might swing.
In 2004, President George Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry by 9 percentage points in Virginia; in 2000, Bush topped Vice President Al Gore by 8 points.
Obama, according to a new Washington Post poll, has essentially reversed those percentage points in his favor. A Real Clear Politics’ average of six polls shows Obama with a 7.3-point lead over Sen. John McCain in Virginia.
“Barack Obama has opened up an eight-point lead over Republican John McCain in Virginia, and the Democrat is entering the final week of the campaign with several core advantages when it comes to turning out his supporters,” wrote Washington Post reporters Tim Craig and Jon Cohen in Monday’s editions.
Facing this swing in the former Republican stronghold, the McCain campaign has been forced to funnel more time and money in Virginia and less toward pivotal swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Most analysts studying Virginia point to the economy, the war in Iraq and low approval ratings of President Bush as the main reasons Obama has made big strides there. They also point to Obama’s massive campaign operation in Virginia, where it opened roughly 70 offices. The state campaign has also worked extremely hard to reach out to the commonwealth’s 5 million registered voters.
In Prince William County, an outer suburb of Washington, D.C., Obama staffers registered thousands of new voters, Time magazine reported.
“If Democrats split the vote in Prince William and win big in the northern counties, they win the state,” Mike May, a Republican Prince William County supervisor, told Time.
In a two-part series last month, the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown reported from northern Virginia and Hampton Roads on the political climate of the state. What Brown found was fewer rural areas, more traffic, more families, more homes and more concern over the economy, which is an issue that treats Obama better in polls than McCain.
Hampton Roads, on the commonwealth’s southeastern coast, is populated by a mixture of retired military and a high number of African-American residents. According to the Washington Post, Obama holds a 17-point lead there.
In total, Obama will have visited Virginia nine times combined with Biden’s five times, while McCain has campaigned there three times added to Palin’s five.
While Virginia has the distinction of electing the first black governor — Doug Wilder in 1989 — more recent Democratic victories in Virginia should have the McCain campaign worried.
In November 2006, Democrat Jim Webb defeated Republican Sen. George Allen in his re-election bid. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is a Democrat, as is former Gov. Mark Warner, whom Kaine succeeded and who is set to cruise into a vacated U.S. Senate seat long held by Republican Sen. John Warner.
All three are popular politicians in the commonwealth, and all three will be campaigning for Obama in this crucial final week.
“The campaign has used me in a lot of different ways,” Kaine told the Washington Post. “But almost all my work since June has been in Virginia because, hey, this is where the action is.”