Friday, August 22, 2008

Where the Race Will Be Won, Part 2

The state that has been getting the most coverage over the course of the campaign has been Virginia. Long in the Republican column (Virginia last voted Democratic in 1964), recent Democratic successes statewide (Jim Webb, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner) have many bullish about Obama’s chances this year. For a good analysis of the state of play in Virginia, see this recent piece by Jay Cost in Real Clear Politics. While Democratic successes have largely been fueled by dramatic demographic shifts in northern Virginia over the past decade or so, another part of the state will be pivotal to both candidates' chances in November.

The cluster of cities located in the southeastern corner of the state, known as Hampton Roads, offers both Obama and McCain tremendous opportunities. A few weeks back, the Washington Post did a story on the region and how competitive it has become. Before running through what each hopes to accomplish here, a brief description of the region’s economy, demographics, and political history is in order.

With a population of over 1.5 million, this area is a collection of contiguous cities—Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Hampton, and others—situated around one of the nation’s largest port areas. This area offers large numbers of people in some of the most important groups to both candidates--veterans, African Americans, labor/blue collar workers, seniors, and college students. The port of Norfolk is the country’s third largest in terms of shipping traffic. As one would imagine, the economy of the region is dominated by the movement of goods in and out of this waterway. A second characteristic of the region is that it has a huge military presence, with over a dozen military installations, especially Navy, located here. Thus, one finds one of the country's largest concentrations of veterans here. Estimates suggest that over 400,000 people have some direct connection to the military (retired veteran, active duty, family member, etc.) with thousands more working in an economy fueled by military dollars.

In terms of racial composition, Hampton Roads has a very large African American population. The following represents the black/white %'s of the major cities:

Virginia Beach: 19/71%

Chesapeake: 29/67%

Newport News: 39/54%

Norfolk: 44/48%

Hampton: 45/50%

Portsmouth: 51/46%

With the tremendous diversity of the region one has also seen political competitiveness. When breaking down the area into its component cities, one notices how both parties have fared well. In 2004, for example, John Kerry won Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News (62%, 61%, 57%, and 52% respectively) while Bush captured Virginia Beach--the largest city--and Chesepeake (59% and 57%). For election returns, see here. In the 2005 governor's race, won by Democrat, and Obama-VP shortlister Tim Kaine, all six of the major cities noted above went Democratic (see results here). The area is currently divided between two congressional districts with part falling in the 2nd district, represented by Republican Thelma Drake, and part falling in the 3rd, represented by Democrat Bobby Scott.

From this, both Obama and McCain have goals and strategies in Hampton Roads. For McCain, capitalizing on the large veteran/military vote is crucial. If recent trends continue, McCain will probably lose northern Virginia by a sizable amount. In order to win the state, he will have to do well here. Even though he should win rural Virginia by large margins, Hampton Roads is the largest population center outside of the D.C. suburbs. McCain might also hope to tap into the blue collar part of the electorate that is normally Democratic. Should he be able to sway these voters due to his biography/military record or "maverick" image, or gain votes due to a hesitancy to support a black candidate, McCain could do quite well here. For Obama, the goal is obviously to capitalize on the large black population of the region and to maximize its turnout. While there is considerable debate about how easy this will be, Obama's organizational machinery seems far more advanced than that of any recent Democratic candidate. Also, as the Washington Post story notes, there is a large student population--in the neighborhood of 70,000--that will be targeted.

So, as Virginia continues to get attention in the weeks ahead, this is the part of the state that I would focus on. Both candidates will be fighting hard here. Obama have a greater need to overperform here than McCain, given the state's history, but both candidates can rightly look here for the keys to the state's 13 electoral votes.

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