The Ripon Forum

Volume 46, No. 3

Summer 2012 Issue

Virginia in the Balance

By on August 13, 2014 with 0 Comments


rf123jrDuring the Olympic opening ceremonies, my local NBC station aired advertisements paid for by a Senate candidate, a presidential candidate, and an outside group interested in influencing the presidential election. Each ran multiple times. Even for those like me who enjoy watching political advertisements, the 2012 elections in Virginia seem likely to offer saturation and satiation. Virginia’s swing-state presidential contest is central to multiple victory routes for both candidates. A knife-edge close Senate contest could simultaneously determine majority control of that chamber.

Polls in the presidential contest are nearly tied. Republican Mitt Romney led for a time in the fall of 2011; President Barack Obama led for much of the spring of 2012. From April through mid-July 2012, Obama led Romney in Virginia polls by an average of 2.3 percent, but in late July 2012 the polls closed toward parity. Grassroots organizational, campaign appearance, and advertising arms races were rapidly accelerating throughout the state by mid-summer as the candidates competed for attention and votes.

 Virginia’s swing-state presidential contest is central to multiple victory routes for both candidates.

Virginia politics is complicated by plural and conflicting influences. Virginia’s conservative southern roots favor Republicans, but suburban transplants are vital for victory in populous northern Virginia. The large African American population remains enthusiastic about and supportive of Obama, but too much racial polarization in the race could favor Romney. Virginia has a relatively robust employment rate, but economic concerns persist. As in much of the rest of the country, polls suggest a majority of Virginians favor spending cuts as a solution to the deficit, yet sequestering defense in particular would exact disproportionate harm on the state economy.

Jobs and the economy remain a central issue for Virginia voters, and a move toward more conservative economic policies was favored by 62 percent of respondents in the most recent Old Dominion University / Virginian Pilot poll conducted May-June 2012 of 776 registered and likely voters. The solid majority in favor of conservative economic policy is less of an advantage for Romney than one might expect, however. In the poll, Romney received the support of only two thirds (68%) of the respondents who thought economic policy should become more conservative. In part, Romney’s weakness among economic conservatives reflects cross-cutting divisions in the electorate. About one tenth of the poll respondents held libertarian views favoring more conservative economic policies yet simultaneously more liberal social policies (e.g. abortion and gay marriage). Obama is favored two to one over Romney among these “libertarian” respondents.

Curiously, Obama’s coalition contains incompatible opposites. In addition to libertarian types, Obama also won the support of nearly three quarters of those seeking a more liberal economic policy paired with a more conservative social policy according to the poll. Consolidating support among economic conservatives while finding ways to exploit divisions in Obama’s coalition could be a route to victory for Romney.

One wild card in the Virginia presidential contest is Constitution Party candidate (and former VA 5th District Congressman) Virgil Goode. Goode’s platform is broadly conservative, although his position against free trade agreements has the potential to draw support from voters dissatisfied with the trade actions and positions of both parties. Goode appears poised to qualify for ballot access, as his campaign claimed on August 1, 2012 to have collected more than 18 thousand signatures, nearly twice the ten thousand required under Virginia law.

 Jobs and the economy remain a central issue for Virginia voters, and a move toward more conservative economic policies was favored by 62 percent of respondents in the most recent Old Dominion University/Virginian Pilot poll…

Goode has the potential to spoil Romney’s electoral prospects. He retains a base of support in the 5th district, although he is relatively unknown in other parts of the state. Polls have put Goode at 5 to 9 percent of the statewide vote if included on the ballot, with most of those votes coming from Romney. As when Kenny Golden ran as a conservative anti-free-trade independent in the VA 2nd district in 2010, some political operatives who favor the Democratic side might be tempted to promote Goode as a way to draw votes from Romney. Golden won 4.3 percent of that vote. Yet even if Goode wins several percent of the vote, it is conceivable that Romney could still prevail. In spite of Golden, Rigell won. Romney could too.

Like the presidential race, the Senate contest between Tim Kaine and George Allen is knife-edge close, and negative ads are proliferating as each candidate seeks to remind voters of the other’s real or perceived failings. In an average of all polls conducted from April through mid-July 2012 Allen had a 0.6 percent lead over Kaine. Because Kaine is polling slightly behind Obama, Allen still might manage a win even if Obama prevails in Virginia.

Despite of the extremely close contests up-ballot, most House of Representatives races in Virginia are predictable and unlikely to be close. In part this is because the electoral districts were carefully crafted by the legislature, but Virginians also have surprisingly positive views of their incumbent members of Congress. In the May-June 2012 Old Dominion University/ Virginian Pilot poll, 49.7 percent of respondents indicated that they believed their current representative deserved reelection, while only 24.4 percent of respondents thought their current representative did not deserve reelection. The only House race exhibiting serious competition is the 2nd district which changed party control in both 2008 and 2010. Republican incumbent Scott Rigell and Democratic challenger Paul Hirschbiel have matched each other in fundraising. A wave election could clearly shift the district to Hirschbiel, but by many accounts Rigell has done a good job of establishing himself in the district and can expect the customary “sophomore surge.”

One particular challenge for the House candidates will be to develop an independent image beyond the shadow of the presidential and senatorial contests. The sheer volume of political advertising by October is likely to be extreme, a cacophony of candidate, party, and super-PAC claims. If it becomes impossible for House campaigns to get their message through above the din of competing commercials, coattails may drive the House vote.

Virginia politics has proved fascinating but unstable over the last few years. Democratic waves through 2008 gave way to a Republican tide from 2009 through 2011. The only thing certain about 2012 is that neither party can take Virginia for granted.   RF


Jesse Richman holds a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University and is currently Associate Professor of Political Science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia where he serves as Faculty Director of the Social Science Research Center. Dr. Richman’s writing has appeared in a range of academic journals including the American Political Science Review, Legislative Studies Quarterly, White House Studies, and the Review of Law and Economics. He also served as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow from 2011-2012.

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