Democrats Make Most Of Shifts in Va. Electorate

By Tim Craig and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 30, 2008

Virginia Democrats have rapidly expanded their political base over the past eight years, taking nearly full advantage of demographic shifts in the suburbs, and they enter future statewide races with an advantage over the GOP, according to a review of recent election results and census data.

After an election in which Virginia was one of the most hotly contested states in the presidential race, the results show Virginia Democrats amassing a formidable coalition as the state's suburban communities grow more diverse, white voters in Northern Virginia shun the GOP, young voters align with Democrats and black voters prove they continue to have clout downstate.

The party's gains rest heavily upon the state's changing demographics and were amplified this year by deep enthusiasm for the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates, coupled with a broadly successful turnout operation.

In Northern Virginia's outer suburbs, a growing number of nonwhite residents, particularly Hispanics, are diminishing what had long been a big source of votes for Republican candidates. Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties and Manassas and Manassas Park have all experienced double-digit increases in the percentage of nonwhite residents since 2000. And in each of those locations, Democrats' share of the vote increased proportionally.

The nonwhite population of Prince William, for example, has grown by 13 percentage points since 2000. President-elect Barack Obama carried the county with almost 58 percent of the vote -- 13 points better than former vice president Al Gore did in the 2000 presidential race.

Loudoun experienced a 12-point gain in the minority population since 2000, and Obama did 13 percentage points better than Gore did in 2000. Obama did 10 points better than Gore in Stafford, which saw a 10 percent increase in the minority population since 2000.

This shift, matched with historical Democratic strength in the inner suburbs, makes Northern Virginia a huge source of votes for Democrats. The region's size, compared with the rest of the state, threatens Republicans' ability to win statewide if Democrats can continue to get their voters to the poll, demographers and political scientists suggest.

"The transformation in Northern Virginia has been rapid and dramatic, and Obama came out of Northern Virginia with a margin of [213,000] votes, and that is very hard to overcome," said Ken Billingsley, director of demographics and information for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. "In Prince William, the change has already occurred, and I am not the least bit surprised that Stafford, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg are moving in that direction."

Obama won Virginia with 52.6 percent of the vote, racking up a higher share than he did in Florida and Ohio, more traditional swing states. Senator-elect Mark R. Warner (D) also won his race with a record number of votes, and Democrats picked up three congressional seats in Virginia.

Many Virginia Republicans argue that their party's poor showing on Election Day can largely be traced to President Bush's low approval ratings, the economic collapse on Wall Street and Obama's decision to flood the state with paid media and staffers. But an analysis of the results suggests that a more fundamental change is occurring, perhaps accelerated by Obama's success in registering hundred of thousands of new voters this year.

"There is no question Republicans cannot run the same type of campaigns they have run in the past and expect to win," said GOP strategist Phil Cox, an adviser to Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the likely GOP nominee for governor next year. "It is a different Virginia than it was a decade ago."

Democratic inroads were evident in the partisan makeup of the electorate, as Democrats comprised 39 percent of Virginia voters this year, according to network exit polls, up from 35 percent in both 2000 and 2004. Republicans' share of the electorate declined to 33 percent from 39 percent in 2004.

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