North-South Ideological Split Poses Challenges for Candidates

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do Northern Virginians look at the world differently from residents of the rest of the state?

It's been a sensitive question in the commonwealth's recent electoral history, one that has gone hand in hand with an occasional suggestion that those who live north of the Rappahannock River don't hold the same views as those in "real Virginia."

When The Washington Post last week published an article featuring the voices of Northern Virginians who had taken part in a recent Post poll, respondents said gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds's rural roots made them anxious about whether he could understand their lives. Some readers said that the story reinforced stereotypes about differences between Washington area suburbanites and Virginians who live in other parts of the state.

But drill down further into the survey's results, and this much becomes clear: There are real distinctions between how voters in northern counties view issues and candidates and how Virginians elsewhere in the state look at them.

Start with transportation.

Northern Virginians, who face some of the nation's worst traffic, were twice as likely as voters in other parts of the state to cite transportation as a top issue in the governor's race. Twenty-four percent called it one of their top two issues, compared with 11 percent in other areas of the state. Twelve percent of Northern Virginia voters called it their most important issue.

Only in the state's southeast, where bridge and tunnel backups are a daily headache, were the numbers at all comparable. There, 12 percent of voters called transportation their top issue and 20 percent said it was in their top two.

Registered voters in NoVa are somewhat more likely to say they would pay more taxes to build and maintain roads -- 46 percent said they would be in favor of a transportation tax increase and 50 percent were opposed. Elsewhere, only 42 percent of voters said they would pay more in taxes for better roads; 56 percent were opposed.

The differences go beyond dealing with the region's perennial traffic jams.

Northern Virginians feel better than other Virginia voters about the direction of the state, about President Obama and about the federal stimulus package.

Perhaps buoyed by fewer job losses than seen elsewhere, 60 percent of Northern Virginia voters believe the state is on the right track. Only 43 percent elsewhere in the state agree. (That number dips to a meager 26 percent in the depressed western region, including the Shenandoah Valley.)

Sixty percent of Northern Virginia voters approve of Obama's job performance, eight points higher than Virginians elsewhere.

Thirty-one percent of NoVa voters believe the federal stimulus plan has already helped the state's economy. An additional 33 percent believe it will help the economy over time. Only 27 percent of Virginians in other areas think the stimulus package has helped, and 23 percent think it hasn't yet but will in time.

Those in Northern Virginia are more likely to believe abortion should be legal. In Northern Virginia, 60 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 53 percent in the rest of the state.

What does all this mean for candidates running for statewide office? Both men running for governor have said the votes of Northern Virginia will be critical to the election's outcome.

One answer, particularly for Democrats, might be to craft a message that caters to the concerns of Washington suburbanites, one that leans heavily on Obama's support, pushes to the left on social issues and calls for increased funding for transportation.

Deeds, a state senator, has already moved in this direction, campaigning with Obama this month in Tysons Corner. He launched an assault on the antiabortion record of Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP candidate and former attorney general, and called for a new long-term revenue stream for road improvements.

But run too far to the left or promise too much funding for Northern Virginia, perceived by many as the lucky, affluent portion of the state, and risk alienating voters elsewhere.

Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax), one of those who took issue with The Post's story on Northern Virginia, said he does not believe the region needs a special message. The region has trended toward the Democratic Party, he said, largely by an influx of immigrant small-business owners. They are more likely to applaud Obama and his federal proposals because they are more likely to see themselves as Democrats.

But, he said, a robust message of improving education and creating economic opportunity is what will capture their votes, a campaign that could be just as successful elsewhere in the state.

Instead of fine-tuning the message, Petersen suggests tried-and-true politicking in the region.

"At the end of the day, there's no substitute for just being there," he said. "Going to the local churches or standing outside the Metro stations or walking in the parades. In that way, this is just old school Southern-style politics."

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) recommended another tactic for candidates looking to win the region: Confront the rest of the state about the amount of tax dollars that flow from Northern Virginia to schools and services elsewhere.

"A statewide candidate has to look everybody in the state in the eye and say, 'Northern Virginia is what's paying for your schools and roads, and we have to take care of Northern Virginia,' " he said.

Which would work? It's hard to know. But the two agreed on this: Crack the NoVa nut, win the election.

The Washington Post poll was conducted Aug. 11-14 among a random sample of 1,002 adults in Virginia, including 868 registered voters (235 registered voters in Northern Virginia and 633 in the rest of the state). The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three points among all voters, six points among Northern Virginians and four points in the rest of the state.

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