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The Advocate's Big Four Report: Virginia

The Advocate's Big Four Report: Virginia

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The Advocate continues its coverage of four swing states this week with Virginia, a traditionally red state where some recent polls give Sen. Barack Obama a dougle-digit advantage. Today's story is the first of four pieces focusing on the state's political dynamics, LGBT concerns, and how it all will play out on Election Day.

Target State: Virginia

Electoral College Votes: 13?

Voted for Bush: 2000 and 2004 ?

Governor: Tim Kaine (D)?

State Senate: 21 Dem, 19 GOP?

State House: 44 Dem, 54 GOP, 2 Independents

In a state that has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and where George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by a solid eight percentage points in 2004, Sen. Barack Obama now has a 10-point lead over Sen. John McCain, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll released Monday.

"When Barack Obama first started competing in Virginia, I assumed the reason he was doing it was to distract John McCain from other states," says Craig Brians, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Tech. "Not since the 1960s have Republicans even come to Virginia, because they know how it's going to turn out."

But red Virginia has been donning shades of blue lately, electing its second successive Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, in 2005, and elevating Jim Webb to the U.S. Senate in 2006, which enabled Democrats to clinch control of that chamber. Additionally, former Democratic governor Mark Warner is now about 25 points ahead in his race to capture Virginia's other U.S. Senate seat, which is being vacated by Republican John Warner (no relation to Mark).

"What that says about elections statewide to me is still not entirely clear," Brians says. Though he isn't calling Virginia for Obama yet, he does note some surprising turns in the presidential race this cycle.

First, he points to where the candidates have ventured -- or not, in some cases. McCain has mainly campaigned just outside the Beltway, in northern Virginia and near where the military bases are in the Hampton area, while Gov. Sarah Palin has stopped in Richmond.

Northern Virginia is the state's fastest-growing region, accounting for about a third of the state's population. That section of the state has become heavily Democratic in its voting, and it's the turf where most analysts believe the race will be won or lost. Still, Brians says, "if they're really competing for Virginia as Republicans, they should be all over the state, they should be everywhere here, and they're really not."

Perhaps even more noteworthy, Obama kicked off his Virginia campaign in what's known as Southside, the bottom two thirds of the state running along the North Carolina border. The economy has tanked in the region, and unemployment rates in at least two cities have settled into double digits.

"Barack Obama went there," marvels Brians. "Nobody ever goes to those places, because if you're from the government and you show up there, those people are ticked off."

Brians admits that he isn't sure whether Obama is really competing for votes there or if the stop was more of a "you are not forgotten" gesture, but nonetheless, he says Obama has traveled outside of the state's blue zones to penetrate other regions of Virginia.

Another innovation of the Obama camp has been the "blanket approach" registration drive, which has indiscriminately signed up scores of new voters across the state.

"Usually, you do kind of a sleeper campaign, a private campaign," says Brians. "This has been a huge public campaign with TV spots and radio spots." He contrasts the strategy with that of Bush's top strategist Karl Rove, who targeted a couple specific counties in Ohio in 2004 in order "to really drastically punch up Republican voter turnout there."

Overall, Virginia has registered a net gain of 436,000 voters, "the largest surge in voter registration that Virginia has ever experienced," according to a release from the State Board of Elections. The state does not track party affiliation, but nearly 40% of the newly registered voters are younger than 25 and, regardless of age, females represent the majority of new voters.

Brians calls Obama's method "risky" because it's not known exactly which way the voters who sign up will vote or if they'll even make it to the polls. But, he adds, "if it works, then this might turn out to be a new model."

As with the rest of the country, the economy is starting to dominate as an issue over everything else.

While the southern portion of the state has unusually high unemployment, the northern part of Virginia with its suburbs and exurbs boasts a 3.6% jobless rate, according to the Virginia Employment Commission (5% is considered "full employment"). Even though the state rate of 4.6% in August was lower than the national average, which hovers around 6.1%, it still represents an 11-year high for the state, up from 3.2% the previous August.

Brians says that the news that Wachovia, which provides a lot of jobs in the state, may make big staffing cuts has a lot of people nervous.

While Virginia has always prided itself on being a low-taxation state, which would bode well for McCain's "no new taxes" battle cry, Brians isn't sure how the economy will figure into the state vote.

"If unemployment is the concern, political science research demonstrates that people are more likely to vote for Democrats," he says. "If inflation is the concern, then they're more likely to support Republicans."

It's tough to predict in a state where unemployment, education, and income all vary wildly depending on the region. "There are so many Virginias," says Brians, "and Virginia as a state really doesn't have an identity that it holds to anymore."

Next up in the series: a look at how Equality Virginia has managed to bring the blue out in a traditionally red state.

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