Truman won not just the presidency but the city, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, edging out Thomas E. Dewey there by a mere 107 votes. That was the last time Lynchburg, best known today as home to conservative powerhouse Liberty University, went blue for president — until last week, when former vice president Joe Biden beat President Trump.
Election officials confirmed over the weekend that Biden’s 500-vote lead on election night not only held, but also grew to 951.
Snapping the Democrats’ 72-year losing streak is all the more notable because Liberty played a key role in helping Trump win the White House four years ago. An early endorsement from then-Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. convinced some skeptical evangelicals to back the thrice-married casino developer.
But Falwell, forced out in August after a series of scandals, was no help to Trump this time. While the voting precinct on Liberty’s sprawling campus still heavily favored Trump, turnout there fell by more than half. The drop-off was sharpest among Republicans. Some say Falwell’s downfall hurt Trump by tainting the original endorsement and creating distractions on a campus where voting is normally pushed.
“The thing that struck me the most was the absence of Jerry Falwell this time around,” said David Richards, a political scientist at the University of Lynchburg. “I can’t help but think if Jerry Jr. was still president that he would have had a rally and would have energized the city. . . . That’s an unknown factor that’s hard to measure. But without him using his bully pulpit at the university, some people may have decided to sit this one out.”
Falwell’s downfall was hardly the only factor. The coronavirus pandemic led some students to study (and vote) in their home states. So did the continued political evolution of Virginia, a state that has turned increasingly blue amid a suburban backlash to Trump. A presidential battleground in 2016, Virginia was not considered in play this time — so out-of-state Liberty students were encouraged to vote back home if the race there was more competitive.
Whatever the reason, Lynchburg’s flip has given local Democrats an unfamiliar spring in their step. They hope Liberty’s political influence over the city may be on the wane just as downtown redevelopment is bringing loft apartments and new voters to the city.
“The population’s changing,” said Marek Payerhin, a political science and international relations professor at the University of Lynchburg. “There has been a lot of revitalization projects in downtown, new walking areas, new restaurants and — how do I put it — a little upscale bohemian vibe that is coming to the city.”
Not that Lynchburg is in any danger of being confused with Berkeley, Calif. Eric Harrison, chairman of the Lynchburg Republican City Committee, said the city still has a strong base of conservatives who will come back to the party when a more conventional Republican leads the ticket.
“I don’t think it’s a repudiation of conservative principles,” said Harrison, who noted that some Biden supporters split their tickets to support conservative Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.). “There is a type of voter in the city who isn’t overly engaged in politics, has a sort of generally conservative viewpoint on things fiscally . . . for whom the president sort of, as an individual, was distasteful.”
Biden still would have won Virginia handily even if Lynchburg had delivered for Trump. The former vice president won the state by nearly 424,000 votes, according to the latest state figures.
The number of votes cast this year at the on-campus Precinct 302 was 1,368, compared with 3,205 four years ago. The drop-off was far more pronounced on the GOP side.
Biden won 117 votes at the Liberty precinct, compared with 140 cast for Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago. But Trump’s total shrank from 2,739 in 2016 to 1,197.
“Trump still got 10 times the number of votes that Biden did in this precinct (1,197 vs. 117); but 4 years ago, Trump got some 19.5 times as many votes as Clinton (2,739 vs. 140),” Payerhin wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “The Democratic votes held at a similar level while Republican ones dropped precipitously.”
State Del. Wendell S. Walker (R-Lynchburg), who helped run the local Trump campaign headquarters from a storefront across the street from Liberty, attributed the decline to a more strategic approach to voter registration.
“I was encouraging students to vote where their vote would count the most,” he said. “If it’s North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arizona — please, vote absentee ballot [in those states].”
Dustin Wahl, who graduated in 2018, said that, under Falwell’s leadership, the school pushed voter registration hard. As 500 students filed out of Bible classes in 2016, they were handed registration forms, recalled Wahl, who complained at the time that Falwell’s vigorous support made it hard for students to oppose Trump.
“Maybe that’s one of the things that fell through the cracks this year,” Wahl said.
The namesake son of the late Moral Majority founder who started the school, Falwell hosted Trump on campus back in 2012, when the businessman and reality TV star addressed a then-record 10,000-student convocation crowd. He introduced Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time,” Liberty said in a news release at the time. Trump spoke on campus several more times, including in the spring of 2016, and Falwell became a crucial campaign surrogate for him.
Tavia Bruxellas, a senior at Liberty studying international relations, said politics were more subdued on campus this fall.
“There was a get-out-the-vote effort, but it didn’t seem as strong as it was before,” she said. “It was more subtle this year, as the university seems to be trying to pull itself from the political spheres.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.