Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
President-elect Donald Trump’s showing in Virginia is not surprising, although most observers had written off the Old Dominion as not competitive this year. Early data from the reliable Virginia Public Access Project help us review what happened and consider what it portends for Virginia.
Experts wrongly said that a candidate could not compete in Virginia merely by winning the white vote. But this assumption was based on a turnout model from the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, which had an African American presidential nominee.
Although the white portion of the population in Virginia is declining relative to the fast-growing minority populations, except for election cycles with an African American leading the ticket — Doug Wilder, Barack Obama — minority turnout has never approached white turnout. Turnout among African Americans this year was down an astonishingly high almost nine percentage points from 2008 and 2012.
Indeed, the turnout in Northern Virginia precincts with substantial Latino populations was down about three percentage points from 2008 and 2012. A lower turnout among blacks and Latinos kept Virginia competitive.
Also, too many observers assumed that the white turnout percentage would remain steady. With his strong appeal to less-educated, non-urban, working-class white voters — a segment with lower turnout than educated whites — Trump reconfigured the electorate and put Virginia in play. Those voters turned out in higher percentages than in 2008 and 2012, and went more than 80 percent for Trump.
The Clinton campaign largely pulled its ads and resources out of Virginia in August, only to jump back into the state in the last two weeks as the race tightened in the polls. Staying in the commonwealth could have solidified the outcome earlier and obviated the need to expend critical resources there late in the campaign. Many Democratic activists and campaign workers pleaded with the Clinton campaign to stay continually active in Virginia, but the campaign thought Virginia was an easy pickup. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state, but at some cost.
This was supposed to be a “change” election year. Typically after one party controls the White House for a long time, the country is inclined to turn to the opposition party. If the Republicans had nominated anyone other than Trump, the Old Dominion easily could have been red this year. The assumption that a flawed nominee alone would overturn the cyclical patterns of elections was simply wrong. Either Trump had to pass the bar of credibility, or Democrats also had to nominate a flawed candidate to keep the normal cycles in place. Polls showed that many Virginia voters had highly negative views of Clinton.
Until 2008, Virginia was the country’s most reliable red state. From 1952 until Obama’s win here in 2008, Virginia turned blue only once (and barely so), in the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson landslide. During that period, Virginia was the only Southern state not to support fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter for president in 1976. Obama changed all of that, and now Virginia has gone blue for three consecutive election cycles. That is impressive. The streak could certainly continue.
But there is reason to pause: The margin by which Clinton took Fairfax County will be very difficult to replicate in future presidential elections. So will her suburban margins in the 1st, 2nd and 7th districts. And Trump made the rural areas relevant again. A future GOP nominee could easily win by replicating this rural enthusiasm, doing slightly better in the suburbs and being slightly more competitive in Fairfax.
Finally, consider that polls showed that many Virginians had a very negative view of Trump. A GOP nominee with a more positive standing with voters could have won the state. And, if he governs successfully, a much more popular incumbent President Trump could win in 2020.