The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No TV ads, no presidential visits: Virginia’s era as a swing state appears to be over

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave after a campaign event in May 2012 in Richmond. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

RICHMOND — Barack Obama held the very last rally of his 2008 campaign in Virginia, the longtime Republican stronghold he flipped on his way to the White House.

Four years later, Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney made more visits and aired more television ads here than nearly anywhere else. And in 2016, President Trump staged rally after rally in the Old Dominion, while Hillary Clinton picked a Virginian as her running mate.

But Virginia isn’t getting the swing-state treatment this time around. As in-person early voting got underway Friday, Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden were dark on broadcast television. Super PACs were clogging somebody else’s airwaves. Even as Trump and Biden have resumed limited travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, neither has stumped in the commonwealth.

“There’s really no discussion about the state being in play,” said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “If you’re Ohio or New Hampshire, or Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, you’ve always been in that spotlight. Virginia got it for such a short period of time.”

The last time presidential candidates stayed out of Virginia and off its airwaves was 2004. The state was reliably red then, having backed Republicans for the White House every year since 1968. Now Virginia seems to be getting the cold shoulder because it’s considered solidly blue.

“Virginia was the belle of the ball in 2008, and again in 2012, and still once more in 2016, but in 2020, the commonwealth is a wallflower,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist.

Daniel Palazzolo, a University of Richmond political scientist, described Virginia’s moment as a top-tier swing state as unusually fleeting. “Normally . . . if a state’s a battleground state, it stays that way for a longer period of time than this one,” he said.

This is what a blue state looks like: Rapid change roils Virginia Republicans

Demographic trends — immigration and a population boom in the well-educated, affluent Northern Virginia suburbs — had been nudging the state into purple territory for years. The rise of Trump threw that into overdrive, as non-White and college-educated voters recoiled from what they saw as “a toxic combination of ideology and style,” political scientist Larry J. Sabato said.

“Looking forward, the question is whether the Democratic gains in the suburbs are semi-permanent or how much of that shift is being driven by President Trump,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections.

The Trump and Biden campaigns insist they are making a real push for Virginia’s 13 electoral college votes.

Both candidates tweeted at Virginians on Friday as early voting began in the state.

Voters lined up early at the Fairfax County Government Center and some waited for hours to cast their ballot as early voting began in Virginia on Sep. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The future of our country is on the ballot, and your voice is absolutely critical to deciding who we are as a nation,” Biden tweeted.

In a string of tweets, Trump promised a “Big Rally in Virginia,” predicted victory and touted some of the state’s GOP candidates for Congress.

He also took aim at Gov. Ralph Northam (D), saying he is “crazy” and wants to “take away your guns, which he will do without me in office.”

Northam signed a host of gun-control bills into law this year. None will “take away” guns from lawful owners, unless those owners are deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Trump went on to say Northam “is in favor of executing babies after birth.”

Republicans accused Northam of advocating infanticide in January 2019, following comments he made in a radio interview related to a late-term-abortion bill.

A former Army doctor and pediatrician, Northam appeared to be talking about end-of-life care for a newborn that is “not viable,” but he has never clarified his remarks. Northam has called the infanticide allegation wrong and “disgusting.”

Northam responded to Trump with a tweet referencing news reports that the president has disparaged veterans — an allegation Trump has called “fake news.”

“Like so many Virginians, I wore the uniform of my country,” Northam tweeted. “We aren’t suckers or losers. And by the way — we vote.”

Northam also tweeted that he’d proudly voted that morning for Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).

The volley of tweets injected a little fire into Virginia’s race, but it was expected to quickly fizzle out.

Neither campaign would disclose its number of paid staffers in the state, a metric typically trumpeted as a sign of strength. But Trump’s team said it has 5,000 volunteers and noted that Vice President Pence gave a speech to Virginia Military Institute cadets on Sept. 10. Biden’s campaign has reserved nearly $1.5 million in Virginia television ad time for October, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

“Virginia is one of 17 battleground states that we’re investing in around the country,” said Samantha Cotten, a regional spokeswoman for the Trump campaign.

John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who was Trump’s 2016 Virginia chairman, said Trump volunteers are engaging in the door-knocking and rallies that Biden’s team has largely scrapped because of the pandemic. He said that grass-roots organizing is more critical than television ads in Virginia, where the strategy is not to sell skeptics on Trump, but to get every last one of his supporters to the polls.

“This election is not about persuasion. It’s about mobilization,” said Fredericks, who led a rally inside a Lexington restaurant on the eve of Pence’s visit to VMI. “And we’re mobilizing like I’ve never seen before.”

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who has helped promote Biden with virtual events, was skeptical of Trump’s efforts in Virginia.

“The only ground game he’s got going on is 18 holes on the golf course,” McAuliffe quipped.

Biden’s campaign said it has been engaging voters with virtual meetings, such as the online rally Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, headlined Monday. It has formed various coalitions — African Americans for Biden, Women for Biden, Jewish Americans for Biden, and — for Hispanics — Todos Con Biden. All the coalitions meet virtually.

“It’s probably a bluer state, but our campaign just isn’t running that way. We aren’t taking a single vote for granted, especially in this unprecedented environment,” said Chris Bolling, Biden’s Virginia director, referring to the pandemic and new state voting laws that give voters more options for how to cast their ballots.

Virginia voting guide: What you need to know about early voting, mailed ballots

Virginia Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to retain the governorship, capture three more congressional seats and win the state House and Senate over the past three years.

In a historically Republican stronghold, Democrat Abigail Spanberger looks to hang on

While Republican congressional candidates are trying to cite Democratic gains as reason to flip some of the state’s newly blue districts back to red, Northam said his party has used its newfound power in Richmond in ways that should reflect well on Biden.

“Virginians, I think, are really looking for leaders that will deliver and will take action,” he said, noting legislation Democrats passed to expand access to health care, restrict guns and protect the environment.

Virginia was the only Southern state Trump lost four years ago, falling five points behind Clinton. Biden was 10.9 points ahead of Trump in Virginia this week, according to an average of presidential polling by FiveThirtyEight.

“When you’re getting consistent double-digit leads over time, I guess you just want to try to put your efforts where they seem to make sense,” said Farrah Stone, poll director at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy.

Having backed every Republican from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, Virginia was surprised to find itself at the center of Obama’s battle with Republican John McCain in 2008.

The campaigns spent a combined $16 million on television advertising here, behind only Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan research group. Virginia also ranked fourth in campaign events with the presidential or vice-presidential candidates.

By 2012, the focus on Virginia intensified. Romney unveiled running mate Paul D. Ryan in Norfolk and gave prime-time convention speaking slots to then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), McDonnell’s daughter and a Virginia state delegate. The state ranked third in visits and TV spending, according to FairVote.

Republicans dare to hope: Did Virginia get her swing back?

“The Republican National Committee bent over backwards to give us everything we needed to compete in Virginia,” said Bill Bolling, a former Republican lieutenant governor who was Romney’s Virginia chairman.

In 2016, Virginia was an on-again, off-again battleground. Clinton picked Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a popular former governor, as her running mate. The lone vice-presidential debate took place in Farmville.

Clinton and Trump had paid staffers and TV ads all over the state, but after a string of polls showed the Democrat with a comfortable lead, both sides went off the air that summer. In late fall, the two campaigns went back on television and staged a flurry of 11th-hour rallies.

The big surprise was not that Clinton won the state, but that Trump won the presidency without it.

“I remember saying in 2016, ‘Look, [whoever] wins Colorado, Virginia and Nevada, boy, that should tell you who wins the White House. But no, it did not,” said Walter, of the Cook Political Report.

Instead, Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — former Rust Belt states that had once been solidly Democratic and that are the focus of massive attention by both campaigns this year.

“I think [Trump] can still win the presidential election,” said Tucker Martin, a Richmond-based consultant who has advised Republicans and has been highly critical of Trump. “But I don’t think Virginia will be part of their path to victory, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Virginia’s seemingly quick flip into and out of swing territory may look like a smooth red-to-purple-to-blue metamorphosis, but nothing’s permanent in politics, said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“There’s never a straight-line evolution,” he said. “It’s a roller coaster — zigs and zags depending on what the issues are, who the candidates are, who’s energized and who isn’t.”

But for now, Sabato said, he can’t imagine a zig or zag that would put Virginia within Trump’s reach.

“He’d be foolish to spend in Virginia, and probably Biden would, too,” Sabato said. “If Biden can’t carry Virginia, he should just stay in Delaware.”

This is what a blue state looks like: Rapid change roils Virginia Republicans

In a red House district, a Democrat tries to siphon votes from a conservative with a ‘biblical world view’