A little more than a decade ago, President George W. Bush won Virginia with ease for a second time — an eight-point victory that was never in doubt.
Over the subsequent eight years, nearly the opposite happened: Barack Obama won the state twice, becoming the first Democrat to win here since Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory in 1964.
Now, Virginia appears to be drifting out of reach for Republican Donald Trump; he trailed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points in an NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll released Friday. Analysts are contemplating taking Virginia off the list of presidential battlegrounds entirely and tucking it neatly in the column of safely blue states.
Where uncertainty remains is whether that status applies only this year, because of the steady decline of Trump’s campaign, or whether it is a sign of a longer-term problem for Virginia Republicans that will extend beyond presidential races in years to come.
What is clear is that the demographics of the state have shifted dramatically in the space of a single decade, with populations of educated, high-income professionals as well as immigrants and other minorities — all voters who tend to choose Democrats — growing in urban areas. These shifts reflect national trends, Pew research shows.
And they are particularly bad news for Trump. Not only was he propelled to victory in the GOP primaries by white, blue-collar and rural voters who are in dwindling supply in Virginia, but he also has alienated large swaths of the electorate that have become deciding factors in Virginia races: women, minorities and educated professionals.
David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report predicted that Trump is at risk of losing by a landslide in the vote-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia — and that no amount of support in the less-populous rural regions could counteract that.
“Here’s the problem for Trump,” Wasserman said. “Not only could he get annihilated in Prince William and Loudoun. He could lose by 200,000 votes in Fairfax County.”
Wasserman noted that Trump made a telling misstep at his rally in exurban Loudoun County recently. Speaking to residents of a diverse county with some of the highest income and employment rates in the country, he lamented the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs in rural Virginia.
“There isn’t a demographic in Loudoun County that he hasn’t turned away,” Wasserman said. “Voters in Loudoun want to know what Trump will do to improve schools, infrastructure, health care — but they don’t ascribe to his apocalyptic view of the country.”
The outlook is so grim for Republicans that Clinton recently hit pause on some television ads in Virginia and another typically swing state, Colorado. Meanwhile, in addition to concentrating on more competitive battlegrounds, she has turned some attention and resources to other, traditionally red states, including Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, in hopes that the shifting demographics on display in Virginia might also work in her favor there.
Even Virginia Republicans acknowledge the challenge. Trump counts few Republican elected officials among his vocal supporters in part due to some of his more inflammatory comments, which have alienated groups including women, Muslim Americans, Hispanics and those with disabilities.
“There’s still time, but to date the campaign has shown little inclination to reach out to the sorts of voters you need to get to 50 plus 1 in the commonwealth,” said Phil Cox, who ran former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell’s 2009 campaign — ending in a 17-point win — and is the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
McDonnell’s victory seven years ago — his subsequent legal troubles notwithstanding — continues to offer solace to some GOP leaders that there remains a path to statewide victory in Virginia, if not in presidential elections, when turnout is so much higher.
It’s worth noting that fewer than 2 million Virginians cast ballots in the 2009 gubernatorial race that McDonnell won — little more than half the number, 3.8 million, who voted in 2012 for president.
It’s also worth noting just how enormous the voting power of the Northern Virginia suburbs has grown. In 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush lost his reelection campaign, he won Virginia by four points. He was buoyed by a 100,000-plus-vote advantage outside of Northern Virginia that overwhelmed Bill Clinton’s 12,000-vote advantage in the areas surrounding Washington.
Fast-forward to 2012, when President Obama netted 225,000 votes in Northern Virginia, which he won by 21 points — overwhelming Republican Mitt Romney’s advantage of 79,000 votes across the rest of the state.
Here’s another way to look at it: From the 1992 to the 2012 presidential elections, the population of Northern Virginia grew from 1.5 million to 2.2 million. And it grew with an influx of a particular kind of voter; in that same time period, in Fairfax County alone, Democrats’ lead over Republicans in Fairfax grew from three points to 15 points, according to election returns, with Obama garnering nearly 6 in 10 votes.
Now, Democrats rely on what may be fast becoming a fail-safe formula: Focus on turning out voters in the “urban crescent” of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads and the college towns of Charlottesville and Blacksburg, and it becomes really hard to lose. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) used this playbook to defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli II in the 2013 governor’s race — and Clinton is on track to do the same this year.
Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the head of Trump’s Virginia campaign, insists that Trump continues to have a path in Virginia. He said Trump’s appeal to working-class voters is greater than Romney’s was.
“A lot of people who voted for Obama will vote for Trump,” Stewart said. “That’s because of Trump’s particular attraction to blue-collar voters. He can appeal to blue-collar voters in a way that Romney could never do.”
Experts, however, disagree. Those likely voters that Stewart described live along the less densely populated Interstate 81 corridor through central Virginia and the economically challenged Southwest, as well as the battleground region of Hampton Roads. Even with the relatively high turnout of a presidential year, there simply aren’t enough Trump voters to overtake Democrats’ edge in the north.
Nevertheless, Trump recently visited Roanoke and Abingdon, while the campaign dispatched his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, home to a large percentage of active and retired members of the military. At the height of the fervor over Trump’s attacks on the Muslim American family of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq, the visit received mixed reviews.
Trump also appears to be lagging behind in organization. Stewart said the campaign has 40 paid staffers in Virginia, but he did not identify any local events or field offices. The statewide communications director started Thursday — three months after Clinton’s did.
Clinton, meanwhile, has 28 field offices so far and holds phone banks seven days a week.
“They bring all of the organization, they have the phone lists, they have their goals for the day, they line up all the volunteers,” said Anne Murphy O’Neil, 77, a retiree who made meatloaf sandwiches on artisan bread for the latest in weekly Democratic phone banks at her Fairfax County home.
In fact, the Clinton hype is widespread enough that the campaign is fighting complacency.
For this reason, many Virginia Republicans have written off the presidential election and are turning their attention to the 2017 races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Additionally, if the Clinton ticket wins, Sen. Tim Kaine’s seat could be on the ballot, too.
That may be no more true than for Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who narrowly lost a challenge to Sen. Mark R. Warner in 2014 and is gearing up for a run for governor next year. To win, Gillespie must follow the McDonnell model: turn out all GOP voters in rural Southwest and southern Virginia, do well in Hampton Roads and stem losses in Northern Virginia.
It’s a strategy that relies on policy-oriented moderates who don’t turn off the base. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), whose district includes portions of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties, is one; Trump isn’t. (Comstock has not endorsed Trump and stayed away from the Republican convention in Cleveland last month.)
“It’s a purple state with an increasingly blue hue, but as Republicans, we’ve shown we can win statewide if we run the right kind of candidates and campaigns,” Cox said.
It’s one part of this year’s Virginia political story that makes Democrats nervous. A backlash to Obama in 2009 helped sweep McDonnell into office, and the following year saw the defeat of three Democratic congressmen. Democrats fear a similar reaction to a Clinton victory. Last week, early front-runner Gillespie unveiled his policy team, and he has been fundraising for months.
“Every time I give a speech at a rally or a house party,” Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said, “I end it with, ‘Don’t forget, our work doesn’t end in 2016 — stick around for 2017.’ ”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.