Voter Registration Key to Obama's Efforts to Put Virginia in Play

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

RICHMOND -- Virginia has added nearly a quarter-million registered voters since the 2004 elections, and about half of that growth came from increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia.

With Virginia a battleground state in the presidential race for the first time in 44 years, the additional voters have the potential to alter long-standing electoral patterns in some historically Republican counties while reinforcing the Democratic tilt of others.

According to a review of registration statistics from Nov. 1, 2004, through Aug. 1 of this year, Virginia has 235,976 more registered voters than it did in 2004, when President Bush carried the state by 262,000 votes.

Democrats say the newly registered voters are fueling the Democratic resurgence in the state, including the election of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 and U.S. Sen. James Webb in 2006.

As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) battle for Virginia's 13 electoral votes, political strategists say these newly registered voters add another element of unpredictability to the November election.

New voters alone won't win Virginia for Obama, Democrats say, but they are a central reason Obama has decided to put so many resources into a state that last went for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. Pennsylvania, historically a battleground state, has just 45,000 more registered voters than it did in 2004.

"This is why Virginia is in play," said Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "If Virginia was the same state as it was four years ago or eight years ago, there wouldn't be much discussion about Virginia being a swing state."

The 5.2 percent increase in registered voters corresponds with recent growth patterns in several areas of the state. But the registration figures in some Northern Virginia localities appear to be outpacing population changes.

About 105,000 of the new voters come from counties in the Washington media market, although political strategists say only a third of the state's residents live in the market.

In Loudoun County -- which Bush won easily in 2004 but Kaine and Webb won in 2005 and 2006 -- voter registration rolls have grown 21 percent since the last presidential election. Loudoun's population has grown about 18 percent during that period, according to county estimates.

The updated figures take into account people who have registered for the first time or moved into the state and those who have died or moved away. Virginians do not register by political party.

Almost every Virginia locality east of the Allegheny Mountains has had an increase in registered voters, including several jurisdictions that are losing population, such as Richmond.

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