Although red colors much of the state in the map above, it paints a somewhat misleading picture of Virginia politics. After all, people vote, acres do not.
A more accurate picture of the vote count uses a cartogram, which sizes the state’s political jurisdictions by the total number of voters in the 2017 election.
The political importance of Arlington County and Alexandria, small jurisdictions on conventional maps of Virginia, becomes clear when they are sized in proportion to their large electorates. These two areas, which gave Northam more than 2-to-1 support, joined with nearby and even more vote-rich jurisdictions, such as Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, to form the top loop of a pair of “blue scissors.”
The bottom loop includes the area from Hampton Roads to Richmond and its suburbs. Northam also prevailed, including in Virginia Beach — Virginia’s second-largest jurisdiction — which Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinnelli won in 2013.
The sea of Republican red in a conventional map shrinks mostly to the blades of the scissors, which include the geographically large but less populous counties along the Interstate 81 corridor and in Southside Virginia. In Tazewell County, for example, Gillespie won 83 percent of the vote, but this gave him only about 6,700 votes more than Northam. By contrast, Northam’s convincing win in Fairfax County, where he won two-thirds of the vote, gave him 137,000 more votes than Gillespie.
Indeed, of Virginia’s 10 most populous cities and counties, only Chesterfield County, traditionally the state’s largely reliably Republican jurisdiction, went for Gillespie. And even here, he won by the thinnest of margins, about 400 votes. Four years earlier, Cuccinnelli won the county by more than 8,000 votes.
Exit polls underscore the GOP’s problems going forward. Voters younger than 30 were the most pro-Northam group, supporting him by a 39-point margin. Adults between the ages of 30 and 44 also supported Northam strongly, by a 24-point margin. Gillespie won older voters, but only by single-digit margins. Gillespie was the strongest with Trump supporters, but more Virginians oppose President Trump than support him.
Fortunately for the GOP, political parties can be very flexible organizations. Gillespie almost was elected to the U.S. Senate three years ago, largely on a relatively centrist appeal that won over large numbers of suburban voters. Many of those voters have disappeared from the Republican side this year, when Gillespie channeled Trump’s message on sanctuary cities and Confederate monuments.
Although either version of Gillespie would have struggled to overcome Trump’s unpopularity this fall, his 2014 campaign offers a more promising model for Republicans in a changing Old Dominion.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Stephen Hanna is professor of geography at UMW.