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November 25, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Dissecting Virginia's blue shift

Earlier this month the New York Times dissected the historic "blue shift" in the recent elections, with a spectacular county-by-county map covering the entire U.S.A., so I figured someone ought to follow up on that by focusing on Virginia. (But not Larry Sabato -- he does national politics now.) With that in mind, I went ahead and compiled the 2008 presidential election results for each of the 95 counties and 39 independent cities, summarizing the findings on a map of Virginia, with different color shades for different percentage levels. (I had previously done such a map showing the 2004 results in Virginia.) Looking at the presidential election results at the local level helps us to get a better understanding of the "seismic" shift that just took place.

Virginia Pres Election By County

To compare the 2004 and 2008 election results in Virginia, roll your mouse over the map above. Click on it to see the net shift from 2004 to 2008.
Full-size maps are shown on the hand pointPolitics in Virginia page.

At first glance, Virginia still looks to be mostly "red," but that is because Republicans generally do better in rural areas which take up more room, while Democrats' votes tend to be concentrated in the densely compacted big cities. In terms of people, as opposed to land, the Obama/Biden ticket beat the McCain/Palin ticket by a total of 234,527 votes in Virginia, 52.6% to 46.3%. Of course, the "urban crescent" consisting of Northern Virginia, Richmond, and the Tidewater area are all Democratic strongholds, and most smaller cities across the state are at least more "moderate" than their surrounding counties, if not outright blue-tinted. For many decades, the Republicans' stronghold in Virginia has been centered in the Mountain-Valley region, but in recent decades the GOP also become dominant in parts of the Tidewater, Piedmont, and Southside regions. Colonial Heights is one of the strongest Republican localities, while neighboring Petersburg is the strongest Democrat locality; it must be like a war zone along the Appomattox River which divides those two cities!

If we look at the net shift in partisan voting behavior from 2004 to 2008, as opposed to the actual percentage of votes cast in 2008, a different pattern emerges. (You can see that either by clicking on the above map or by going to the Politics in Virginia page and using the rollover links.) It is obvious that, with relatively few exceptions, most counties that are still on the reddish side of the spectrum are turning distinctly "pinkish," while most of the bluish counties are turning darker blue. But the magnitude and direction of this shift are geographically concentrated in a manner that is very striking.

The most interesting feature on the Republican side is that their "center of gravity" has shifted away from their historic base in the Shenandoah Valley region, and toward the far southwest corner of the state. That is where one can find the only two counties that had voted for Kerry in 2004 but switched sides and voted for McCain in 2008: Dickinson and Buchanan. Nearly all of the counties where the Republican ticket gained vote shares compared to four years ago are located in the same region. In 2008, Scott County (which borders Tennessee) registered the highest Republican percentage of all the counties in Virginia (70.7%), whereas in 2004 Augusta and Rockingham counties (here in the Valley) tied for first place honors, at 74.4%.

Assuming that present trends continue, in Virginia as in the rest of the country, we must ask what demographic and economic variables are at play, and what this means for rebuilding the Republican coalition as American society changes. In racial terms, the emerging Republican "Heartland" happens to be the "whitest" part of the state; see a national county-by-county map at This area also coincides with the Appalachian coal country which extends into Kentucky and West Virginia; see the maps at Appalachian Regional Commission. (Buchanan and Wise counties produce the most coal in Virginia.) It will take considerable research effort to ascertain more fully the demographic characteristics of the ever-changing Republican "Base," such as income and education levels, religious affiliation. It will be even harder to digest what all this means for the issues that the party ought to emphasize in its campaigns: abortion? taxes? immigration? (When was the last time you heard that mentioned?)

For the Democrats, meanwhile, the biggest gains were seen in the northern, central, and eastern parts of the state, especially in the outer suburbs of Richmond and Northern Virginia. Those were the very same (mostly) upscale parts of the state where population growth was centered and from which the Republicans attracted new followers during the 1970s and 1980s, as the party gained rough parity with the Democrats. The "inner cities" of Arlington/Alexandria, Richmond, and Norfolk were already heavily Democratic and didn't change very much between 2004 and 2008. What did change a great deal since the last election were the counties of Prince William, Loudoun, and Henrico, all of which switched to the Democratic side in the presidential race, as did six other counties and several medium- and small-sized cities. Let's look at the "scoreboard":

Virginia Dems' top ten

Of the 134 local jurisdictions in the Commonwealth, here are the ten cities and counties in which the Democrats scored their biggest gains, comparing the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections:

  1. Harrisonburg :       +14.69%
  2. Manassas Park :       +14.53%
  3. Williamsburg :       +12.47%
  4. Manassas :       +12.06%
  5. Newport News :       +11.95%
  6. Hampton :       +11.62%
  7. Staunton :       +11.55%
  8. Prince William County :       +11.12%
  9. Hopewell County :       +10.47%
  10. Henrico County :       +10.09%

Yes, you read that right: Two of the top seven blue-shifting localities are right here in the Shenandoah Valley, the erstwhile Heartland of the Republican Party in Virginia: Harrisonburg is #1, and Staunton is #7. If that Olympic-sized reversal of political fortune doesn't make Republican Party leaders sit up and start paying closer attention to what's happening in this part the state, then nothing will.

Congressional races

As is often the case in Virginia, the correlation between legislative election results and the presidential election results was rather weak. Overall, the Democrats picked up three of the eleven congressional districts in Virginia, causing an abrupt shift in the balance of power from 8 GOP vs. 3 Democrats to 5 GOP vs. 6 Democrats. Barack Obama's "coat-tail effect" almost certainly made the difference in the extremely tight Fifth District race, which was apparently won by the Democrats.* It probably played a major part in the defeat of incumbent Thelma Drake by Glenn Nye in the Second District, where the margin of victory was four percent. In three of the districts in which they retained control, the Republicans suffered a significant decline in vote percentage compared to 2004. The Democrats are surely taking a good, hard look at vulnerabilities on the Republican side as they prepare to build on their majority two years from now. The First District, successfully held by incumbent Republican Rob Wittman (a "moderate," who replaced the late Rep. JoAnn Davis), experienced a marked "blue shift" in the presidential race, and that would be one of their likely prime targets for 2010.

The "geographical migration" of the Republican Base toward the southwest points to an obvious goal for the GOP in the 2010 elections: Get Rick Boucher! The 14-term (!) House Democrat was unopposed this year, even though only one county in his Ninth District went for the Obama-Biden ticket: Montgomery, which is home to Virginia Tech. If the Republicans can't field a viable candidate in the part of the state where they are the strongest, then something is seriously wrong.

Virginia Congress Election By County

To compare the 2004 and 2008 election results in Virginia, roll your mouse over the map.
Full-size maps are shown on the hand pointPolitics in Virginia page.

* NOTE: Democrat Tom Perriello was just declared the winner in the Fifth Congressional District, but incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode says he will request a recount, because the margin is so small, so the map above may need to be revised later.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 25 Nov 2008, 11: 35 PM

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