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Week of 10.17.08

Virginia's Changing Political Face

Larry Sabota Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, talks to NOW about the changing political landscape in the key swing state of Virginia, and explains why he finds Sen. Barack Obama's popularity there "remarkable."

This is an edited transcript of NOW's conversation with Sabato.

NOW: Given the current economic situation, how anxious are the people of Virginia right now?

Larry Sabato (LS): The electorate ranges from anxious to frustrated. This is a time that is feeding the oldest line in American politics - 'It's time for a change'. That's the great advantage for the out-of-power party.

NOW: How tight is the race in Virginia?

LS: It's surprisingly close. I say surprisingly because I was born in Virginia, grew up here, and have been here for 56 years off and on. This was a state that was very much a part of the Deep South. After all, it originated massive resistance and was the capital of the old confederacy. This was a deeply conservative state, particularly on race. To have an African-American candidate for president, essentially being tied with a Republican candidate who is identified with the military, which was once the bread and butter of Virginia's economy, is remarkable.

NOW: What do you think accounts for this shift in thinking?

LS: The essential explanation is demographic. Virginia has attracted hundreds of thousands of new migrants from other states and from other countries. So, it's a much more open state as a whole, than it was in the past. But you must differentiate among regions. You could travel to certain parts of Virginia and think you were in the old South. You could travel to other parts and be confused as to whether you were in Silicon Valley, or Virginia.

NOW: Does Obama still have a lot of work to do to successfully reach out to white working class voters, particularly in the rural parts of Southwestern Virginia?

LS: If Obama loses Virginia, it's going to be because he crashes and burns in the Western, rural parts of the state. I have seen surveys in some of these Western counties suggesting that Obama is going to do considerably less well than Al Gore and John Kerry did in the last two elections.

NOW: Do you think the financial crisis will draw more independents, more women, more military families and other such groups that are highly sought after by both campaigns?

LS: Absolutely. You know, we talk about Iraq and a year ago we thought that would be the central issue of the campaign. And of course now, as important as it is, it is secondary in the overall process. The economy is front and center. It's not going to change in the remaining days of the campaign. It's pretty clear that this economic crisis and the deteriorating economy is affecting just about everybody. But it also affects, disproportately people who have less. That's what I think may draw out a larger turn out among dispossessed groups, compared to prior elections. I think that may be one of the real surprises coming on November fourth.

NOW: Virginia is the first state to elect an African American governor, Doug Wilder. What lessons were learned from that election?

LS: You know, when Douglas Wilder ran for governor, he was perfectly aligned to win. He was running against a weak opponent, and was ahead 12 to 16 percent in the polls. We thought it would be a landslide. But he won by under 7,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast. Even the exit polls taken on Election Day showed him winning 55 to 56 percent of the vote, but he got just over 50 percent of the vote.

What happened? We've done a lot of studies of that since that happened 19 years ago. We found that about five to six percent of the electorate—almost entirely blue-collar, with no higher education, disproportionately male, had said to the pollsters prior to election day, "We're going vote for the Democratic candidate." But when they went into the polls they could not pull the lever for the African-American candidate. When they came out of the polls and were interviewed by the exit pollsters, they lied and said, "Yes, we voted Democratic." And remember, we're talking about a small segment of the electorate, about five to six percent, but it was almost enough to deprive Wilder of the governorship.

NOW: Do you think there will be any polling discrepancies in the upcoming presidential election due to racial issues?

LS: The answer, of course, is, "Yes." You'd have to be completely naïve to believe that there would be none in Virginia, or Pennsylvania, or Michigan, or Ohio. The important question is, how much will there be? A lot of racial progress has occurred in 19 years. But I'll be surprised if we don't' have one to three points of "racial leakage." That is, you take Obama's final polling average on the weekend prior to the election, subtract two or three points from it. That's what I think the smart, historical lesson is, of Doug Wilder's election and Tom Bradley's non-election as governor of California in 1982. The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day. You just never know until the votes roll in.

NOW: How would you evaluate the two campaigns and their ground strategies in Virginia?

LS: If McCain loses Virginia, it's because they [the McCain campaign] made a significant, potentially fatal error. They believe that Virginia was once again, part of the solid Republican, red, South—that in the end, they'd have nothing to worry about, whatever early polls were showing. They didn't spend any money. They didn't organize Virginia. They just simply assumed they'd carry it.

By contrast, the Obama people realized that Virginia had changed a lot and they understood, they had a least the opportunity to broaden the electoral college map there. They weren't overly confident they could carry Virginia but they knew that they would be foolish not to try. So, they poured resources in. And it's paid off for them because, whether they carry Virginia or not, the McCain people, now have had to sink significant resources into Virginia, a place where they had planned, not even to compete.

NOW: Any predictions?

LS: I'll say this much, if Virginia is even close on election night—and it appears to be, at least close—that is a very good sign for Obama.

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