Just four years ago Virginia seemed a tough lift for national Democrats, moderate Jim Webb barely winning his 2006 U.S. Senate Campaign even after George Allen’s infamous “macaca” incident. But now the state Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win since 1964 is looking like something of a firewall for Barack Obama, the brutal economy and liberal discontent notwithstanding.
“It continues to look like Virginia may be Obama’s firewall state,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling, which released a poll on Wednesday showing Obama’s approval rating in positive territory there, and the president leading Mitt Romney by six points and Newt Gingrich by seven. “He’s holding up well there and it’s going to be tough for the Republicans to get to 270 electoral votes without it in their column.”
Obama’s strength can be traced to massive demographic changes in the state, where the Hispanic population is booming, African Americans are approaching a fifth of the electorate, and the white population continues to get younger, more progressive, and less Southern.
“Virginia has changed a lot,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The growth of government up in Northern Virginia means lots of young people are attracted to that area.”
State political observers also noted that the albatross hanging around the president’s neck — 8.6 percent unemployment — is less of an issue here.
“Virginia’s economy is not as bad as the rest of the nation,” said Robert Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. “The unemployment rate has been 6, 6.2, 6.3 percent, 2 and a half to 3 points lower than the rest of the nation. Virginia has experienced some tough economic times but it has not experienced what the rest of the country has.”
Also boosting Obama’s chances is the failure of any of the Republican presidential contenders to catch on here.
“The polls show the concern that Virginians have with the potential Republican nominees,” said Holsworth. “In Virginia there is by almost a 3-to-1 margin a sense that the federal government’s moving in the wrong direction, but at the same time, it’s not clear any potential Republican nominee comes into this race with a clear advantage over Obama.”
The state has turned sharply right since 2008, electing a Republican governor in 2009 and new Republican members of Congress last year. But that actually may help the president next fall.
“In an odd way, the fact that it has been so good for Republicans in Virginia the last few years [is good for Obama]” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. “It increases the sense of urgency. Democratic voters are really fired up in wanting to make sure that trend doesn’t continue. Certainly, the new Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has served as a lightning rod.”
Cuccinelli is one of the loudest critics of the president’s healthcare law, taking the lead on suing to overturn it in the courts. He announced earlier this month he will seek his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2013.
As the Republican presidential primary has begun to heat up, Team Obama has started to outline their paths to victory. The president is likely to hang on in Iowa, where he won by a wide margin in 2008 and he retains a massive grassroots presence, as well as New Mexico and Nevada, states that didn’t shift as hard to the right as the rest of the country last year and where Latinos are sure to show up at the polls in large numbers for Obama.
Assuming he wins the rest of the states John Kerry did when he lost to George W. Bush in 2004 — and allowing that New Hampshire, which has soured on Obama, could flip to the Republicans — Virginia would seal the deal for Obama.
“One thing to remember about 2008 is Obama did better in Virginia than Ohio,” noted Kondik, suggesting the Old Dominion might be in the process of snagging Ohio’s status as a national bellwether.
“He carried Virginia in 2008 by the same margin he carried the country,” added Holsworth. The state, then, will tell us a lot about Obama’s national standing — and career prospects — when its returns start trickling in next November.