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Correction to This Article
This article on political attitudes in Virginia and West Virginia incorrectly described Grafton, W.Va., as being on a rail line from the Cumberland Gap. The Baltimore and Ohio train line through Grafton came west via the mountain pass in Cumberland, Md.

A New Political Geography

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A Tale of Two Counties
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

When Sen. Barack Obama chose the Nissan Pavilion in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia to kick off his general-election campaign, one of the 10,000 supporters there was David Bruzas, who recently moved to the fastest-growing part of a state that is moving rapidly away from its Republican past.

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"Being in this area has made me a lot more politically in tune with what's going on," said Bruzas, 27, a systems engineer from Illinois who moved to Fairfax County to work for Cisco Systems in 2005. "And I identify with Obama."

Only a few hours west on Route 50, in the old railroad town of Grafton, W.Va., the political world is spinning in the other direction. West Virginia, traditionally Democratic, was one of only six states that voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and one of 10 that voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988, but in recent years it went twice for George W. Bush, and Obama's prospects there are poor.

Looking down an empty Main Street the other day, highway worker David Whitehair, 55, said he was a loyal Democrat until 2000. "Bush was a good man and had good morals. I felt he was the better man," he said. This year? "I don't care for Obama."

The emerging political reversals of the two Virginias are part of a national shift that has been underway for at least a decade and is expected to reveal itself more clearly than ever this November. As the gap grows between places that are prospering and those that are not, Democrats are strengthening their hold in major metropolitan areas, particularly in places faring well in the technology-driven economy.

In 1976, Republican Gerald R. Ford won 10 of the 12 states with the highest per-capita income but lost the election; in 2004, John F. Kerry did the same for the Democrats. The two states won by Republicans? Virginia and Colorado, Obama's top targets, though victory is far from assured, given that vast parts of both remain strongly conservative.

Republicans, meanwhile, are consolidating their hold in rural areas and small cities, while making inroads in struggling Appalachian and Rust Belt regions that were a core of the Democratic base.

The trend generally bodes well for Democrats. Major metro areas are growing faster than the country as a whole, the party's strength with young voters promises a lasting edge, and well-off, highly educated urban voters are valuable campaign contributors in the Internet age. The weak economy and soaring gas prices could accelerate the shift if more Americans move closer to urban hubs in search of good jobs and shorter commutes.

But the Democrats' ascendance in prosperous areas leaves them with weak spots in key swing states such as Ohio. And it presents questions about their identity: The party that fought for the little guy against the party of the wealthy has, while still representing racial minorities, increasingly become defined by the metropolitan middle and upper-middle class.

Theorists have spent years debating what is behind the shift, but they generally agree that the parties are in a cycle in which each plays to its emerging strengths. By pressing issues such as gun rights and same-sex marriage, Republicans tightened their grip on the South and snared such states as West Virginia, but lost many business-minded voters and alienated areas such as Fairfax County, where one in seven Virginians live.

In elevating coastal liberals including Kerry (Mass.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as party standard-bearers, Democrats advanced in their strongholds -- Kerry did better in big cities in 2004 than Al Gore had in 2000, while faring worse overall.

The gap first became apparent in the red-blue map of the 2000 election, but this year's version could represent an even more radical realization of the divide. The Bush presidency has widened the gap, as many suburban voters deserted the Republican Party in the 2006 congressional elections. And it would be hard to find a pair better positioned to clarify the split, and show which segment holds sway in 2008, than Obama and Sen. John McCain.


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