US Elections: Virginia Governor

by Jackie_South on October 31, 2013

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In the US, next Tuesday sees the election of two governors and 31 city mayors. Whilst a number of these elections will be significant, some of those are significant because of who will almost certainly be elected rather than because the result is in any doubt. Normally safely Democrat New Jersey is almost certain to re-elect Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie. New York is almost certain to elect leftie Bill de Blasio as its first Democrat mayor in twenty years.

There is greater uncertainty about who will become the next governor of Virginia. The Old Dominion does not allow its governors to serve consecutive terms and so reasonably popular Republican governor Bob McDonnell is having to stand down in a state that has become a key swing state in presidential elections and is trending leftwards over recent years. But so far this century, the state has elected the candidate from the opposite party to the sitting President.

That all makes for a fascinating election contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

The political landscape

Geographically, Virginia has three topographical regions. The Tidewater is the eastern coastal plain around Chesapeake Bay, taking in the Eastern Shore, the three Virginia peninsulas and the area south of the James River, stretching inland as far as a line stretching south from Washington DC and passing through Richmond, the state capital Over on the western border, the Appalachians run along parallel to the boundary  with West Virginia. In between are the two is the Piedmont, a roughly triangular area of foothills, once largely rural but the north is now the site of the ever expanding suburbs and exurbs of Washington.

As arguably the oldest state, it has a unique structure of administrative divisions: 95 counties and 38 cities that are independent of those counties. Some of those cities are entirely surrounded, doughnut-style, by a county: so the city of Charlottesville is surrounded entirely by Albemarle County. Both cities and counties vary massively in population, with the smallest city (Norton) having a population of 4,000 and the smallest county only 2,500 people.

All those 133 divisions make maps showing political support a little incomprehensible, so I have attempted to simplify them down to twenty. These vary significantly in population too (from 46,000 to 2.8m), but hopefully give more clarity. I have based these on the state’s official 12 Metropolitan Statistical areas and then grouped the remaining counties and cities into 8 other areas.

The chart below shows their population size, coloured by the strength of the vote for the winning party in each in last year’s presidential election: bluer bars voted more strongly for Obama, redder ones for Romney. You’ll see a map later explaining those colours in more clearly. Below the chart, I look at these areas in order of population.

VA region popn chart

1. North Virginia (11 counties, 7 cities)

This area (sometimes abbreviated to NOVA) is the most populous by far of the areas, comprising the suburbs and exurbs of Washington DC and accounting for over a third of the state’s population. This area though is not as urban as, say, Greater London or Greater Manchester: Manassas (famous as the site of the Battles of Bull Run in the Civil War) is less than halfway out from DC in this area, but is a town with its own distinctive identity and surrounded by countryside. Rather, NOVA is the area falling under Washington’s influence.

NOVA is moving leftwards. In 1996, Clinton narrowly lost this area to Bob Dole. Obama won it last year by almost a 15% margin. This shift, and its rapid population growth, is the prime reason why the state is trending towards the Democrats.

The county to watch here is Fairfax County, the most populous by far in the state: at 1.1m it comprises 13.5% of the state’s entire population. Fairfax is the suburban area surrounding the (rock solid Democrat) inner suburbs of Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, stretching out to the edges of Dulles Airport and of the Bull Run battlefield. It also contains George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

In 1996, Dole beat Clinton in Fairfax County by 1.6%, slightly more than his vote share in NOVA over all. In contrast, Obama took it a year ago by 20.5%, more than his edge in the area as a whole and significantly more than his 3.9% lead in the state over all.

If McAuliffe loses Fairfax County, he has almost certainly failed to win the governorship.

2. Hampton Roads (6 counties, 9 cities)

The second most populous area is the area around the Hampton Roads, the natural harbour formed by the estuary of the James River as it joins Chesapeake Bay. Hampton Roads is home to the US Navy’s largest naval base, at Norfolk and a host of other military bases for navy, army and airforce. The state’s three largest (officially) cities – Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake – are all to the south of the estuary, whilst to its north (on the Virginia Peninsula) are the cities of Newport News and Hampton.

Also on the Virginia Peninsula are the site of Jamestown, where Britain’s involvement in America started in 1607. Only twelve miles from there is Yorktown, where Britain’s involvement ended 174 years later. In between the two is Williamsburg, the capital of the state in Colonial times and home to the College of William and Mary university. Finally, the Hampton Roads area takes in the eastern tip of the Middle Peninsula, across the York River estuary from Yorktown.

Over a fifth of the state live in Hampton Roads, and it leans Democratic. Nowadays, it is slightly less Democratic than NOVA, but its support has been more consistent – Obama won there by 12%, Clinton by 5%. The Democrats tend to win in most of the waterfront cities and collegey Williamsburg, whilst the Republicans win in the more rural counties and the affluent suburb of Poquoson.

The result to watch here is Virginia Beach: the largest city in the state with almost half a million inhabitants and makes up a quarter of the voters in Hampton Roads. It is marginally more Republican than the state as a whole: Romney won it by 2.5% last year but senate Democratic candidate Tim Kaine won it by a wafer-thin 0.6% in the same election. Clinton lost it by 9%. If Cuccinelli loses Virginia Beach, he is probably toast.

3. Richmond & Petersburg (16 counties, 4 cities)

This is possibly the key swing area of the state: 16% of its population and consistently very close to the state-wide result (2012: statewide Obama 51.2%, Romney 47.3%; Richmond & Petersburg Obama 51.7%, Romney 46.9%). In the last governorship election and the last two senate elections, the party results here were within two percentage points of the state outcome.

That is not to say it is homogenous politically though. The Democrats’ single strongest result in Virginia is usually in the city of Petersburg (Obama 2012: 90%), site of the final great battle of the Civil War and 80% black. Across the Appomattox River is the 90% white Colonial Heights, which consistently votes Republican (Romney: 69%). Richmond is also massively Democratic (the Democrats’ third best result in 2012, with Obama taking 78%), whilst the rural counties are almost all Republican (Powhatan County, to the west of Richmond, gave 72% of its votes to Romney).

The key swing county is Henrico County, containing the northern suburbs of Richmond. This used to be Republican territory (Dole was 13% ahead in 1996) but, with the growth of Richmond’s suburban spread, is now slightly more Democratic than the state, by a fairly consistent 4%. McAuliffe needs to win here and if his lead is over 10% he has probably won the governorship.


The first three areas make up 71% of the state’s population. You’ll notice that none favour the Republicans, but the GOP build up big leads in some of the smaller areas below.

4. Roanoke (4 counties, 2 cities)

Roanoke is Virginia’s largest city in the Appalachians and the effective capital of southwest Virginia, and this area as a whole makes up 4% of the state’s population. The city itself is reliably Democratic – it is an important rail-freight centre and heavily unionised – but the other (much smaller) city of Salem and all four counties vote Republican.  Obama lost the area as a whole by 14% in 2012.

5. Lynchburg (4 counties, 2 cities)

Just over 3 percent of the state’s population live in the area surrounding Lynchburg, the old heart of the state’s tobacco industry in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is reliably Republican, with all four counties and both cities (the other is nearby Bedford) giving a lead of at least 10% to Romney in 2012. Romney won the area over all by almost 30% in that election. If McAuliffe wins either of the cities (he won’t win in the counties) he has probably easily won the governorship.

6. Charlottesville (4 counties, 1 city)

Regular readers of this blog will have read before about Charlottesville, the picturesque home to the University of Virginia in the hills in the centre of the state that gave the USA two of its early presidents. Charlottesville itself is the Democrats’ second safest division in Virginia (only Petersburg is safer), and the surrounding Albemerle County is better than average for them, as is Nelson County further south. The other two counties tend to go Republican. Over all, this area should chalk up a Democrat lead around 10% ahead of the statewide result here (2012: Obama 56%, Romney 42%). If the Republicans take Albemerle County, they should win the election.

7. Cumberland (6 counties, 1 city)

The most populous non-metropolitan area (the city is Norton with only 4,000 residents) is found in the far southwest of the state, taking in the Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains and is the centre of the state’s coalmining industry. In 2012, it was the most Republican of all 20 of our areas: Romney led by a massive 44%, and won every county by at least 22%. Tazewell County was the strongest Romney performance in the state: a 57% lead.

This has not always been the case. Clinton won big here in 1996 (by 19%), Senator Mark Warner (who has strong links to southwest Virginia) by 27% in 2008. Politically, Cumberland seems to have much in common with the state of West Virginia, to its north.

8. Blacksburg (3 counties, 1 city)

Blacksburg itself is not a city but a town in Montgomery County in the Appalachians, but it is larger than the nearby city of Radford. Blacksburg is home to Virginia Tech university (site of the 2007 massacre), and as a result this area is usually better for the Virginian Democrats than the rest of Appalachia. That said, it still favours the Republicans: Romney won here by 8%. Clinton (1996 – 3% lead) and Warner (2008 – 37% lead) did better here than across the state as a whole.

Watch Montgomery County – Obama only lost it by less than 100 votes (0.3%) last year.

9. Southern Highlands (7 counties, 1 city)

Similar to Cumberland, this is Appalachia mining territory, although more ore mining than coal. It was slightly less Republican than Cumberland in the 2012 (Romney won here by 35%), but has been  more consistently to the right of the state over all. Other than the small city of Galax in the Blue Ridge Mountains (population 7,000, Romney lead 19%), Romney won every county by over 25%.

10. Southern Piedmont (7 counties)

The Southern Piedmont sits geographically and politically between Richmond and Lynchburg.  Both Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 1996 narrowly lost here, both by less than 3%. A Democrat win here is likely to be victory over all. In all seven counties the Democrat share of the vote was within 7% of the state-wide position. The northernmost of the counties, Buckingham County, serves as a pretty good bellwether for the state.

11. Harrisonburg (1 county, 1 city)

The Democrats usually do well in the city of Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley. Unfortunately, they do much worse in the surrounding, and more populous, Rockingham County. Over all, they end up down on the deal: Romney won here by 24%.

12. Rural North Virginia (5 counties)

A string of rural counties lying between the metropolitan statistical areas of NOVA, Richmond, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, Rural North Virginia strongly trends Republican. It stretches from the rolling hills of Orange County (home to James Madison’s estate) westwards to Shenandoah County. Romney won here by 22% in 2012, wining every county. McAuliffe’s best bet is likely to be Rappahannock County, bordered on three sides by NOVA: Romney won here by 8%, so a McAuliffe victory here is just about possible on a strong showing.

13. Staunton-Waynesboro (1 county, 2 cities)

Like its neighbour Harrisonburg, this area tends heavily to the Republicans: Romney won here by 27%. Augusta County surrounds the Shenandoah Valley cities of Staunton and Waynesboro. In Warner’s 2008 senate landslide, this was his worst result: winning by 6%, as opposed to 31% statewide.

Staunton has been a good bellwether in recent elections: less than 1% out of the state tally for Obama (2012), Warner (2008) and McDonnell’s governorship victory (2009). Cuccinelli should win Waynesboro and will win big in Augusta County.

14. Danville (1 county, 1 city)

Danville sits on the border with North Carolina and is the railtown famous for the Wreck of the Old 97Just over half its voters are black or Hispanic, favouring the Democrats.  It is surrounded by Pittsylvania County, a mainly slightly more populous white county with a uranium mining industry, favours the Republicans. Over all, this benefits the Republicans: Romney won here by 8%, although its result for Warner in 2008 was within 1% of the statewide result.

15. North Tidewater (7 counties)

This area covers the Northern Neck peninsula and parts of the Middle Peninsula. Largely rural, it is more Republican than the result of the Tidewater: Romney won here by just shy of 10%. Westmoreland County is usually reasonably close to the state-wide share of votes.

16. Bristol (2 counties, 1 city)

The city of Bristol straddles the border with Tennessee, and the Virginian end has similar politics to eastern Tennessee: very Republican. Obama lost the city of Bristol itself by 30% and neighbouring Scott County by 50%. Warner, with his southwest Virginia credentials, managed to lead by just over 10% here, but that was exceptional.

17. Central Appalachia (4 counties, 3 cities)

Central Appalachia sits around the trans-Appalachian rail route between Washington and Charlottesville to the east and West Virginia. Some mining takes place here, but not as much as in the state’s southwest. Rockbridge County surrounds the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista in the east whilst Covington is surrounded by Alleghany County in the west.

Like Blacksburg, it is usually politically a bit to the left of the rest of Appalachia, but not enough for Obama to win there in 2012 (he lost here by 10%). However, Tim Kaine crashed and burned here in the same elections (despite winning his senate election) losing by 29%. On the other hand, it was the only area that hapless Democrat candidate Creigh Deeds won in his attempt to become governor in 2009: Deeds lives in Bath County here. Both Clinton and Warner did better here than in the state as a whole.

Conclusion? Don’t try to read anything statewide into the results here!

18. Martinsville (1 county, 1 city)

The smallest of the metropolitan statistical areas, it is politically close to the neighbouring Danville area. Martinsville used to be a major centre for first tobacco and then the nylon industry, but most of its industry closed in the 1990s. The city tends to vote Democrat, the surrounding Henry County Republican.  Romney won here by 7%, but Democrat white Southern heroes like Clinton and Warner have outperformed their statewide results here.

19. Southern Tidewater (3 counties, 2 cities)

This majority black rural area, the heart of the state’s old tobacco planatations, votes Democrat. It give Obama an 18% lead, his best performance across our 20 areas, winning over 60% of the vote in two counties and both cities. The exception is Southampton County, the most eastern part of the region next to the Hampton Roads area and site of Nat Tuner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Romney won Southampton County by 3%, so a McAuliffe victory here could indicate victory over all.

20. Eastern Shore (2 counties)

The least populous area sits on the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, separated from the rest of the state by Chesapeake Bay. Northampton County to the south usually votes Democrat, whilst Accomack County to the north is a bit more Republican than the state average. Over all, the area is a reasonable bellwelter, usually within a couple of  percent of the statewide outcome: Obama won here by 2.2%. Of the two counties, Accomack County (lost by Obama by 3,5%) is the better indicator: if Cuccinelli loses here he may well be kissing his chances goodbye.


The map below shows the twenty areas with the results from the 2012 presidential election, which Obama won by 3.9% over all.

VA pres result 2012

Past elections

The map above is probably the closest to the pattern we should expect this time around. McAuliffe is very much a NOVA candidate, a product of Washington. For contrast, here are a few other maps. First, the senate election that took place the same time: Democrat Tim Kaine did marginally better than Obama, winning by 5.5%. Kaine noticeably did a bit better in the southwest and worse in Central Appalachia than Obama.

VA sen result 2012

The last governor elections in 2009, where Republican Bob McDonnell beat Democrat Creigh Deeds by 17%, looked like the map below: McDonnell won every area expect Deeds’ home Central Appalachia area.

VA gov result 2009

At the other extreme, Democrat Mark Warner won every single area in his senate run the year before. His base in the southwest meant that he did particularly well there, given its normal Republican strength.

VA sen result 2008

Our final map shows the Clinton-Dole result from 1996. Clinton lost that election in Virginia by 2%. Note how the largest area (NOVA) and the most significant swing area (Richmond-Petersburg) both narrowly went to Dole. These are the areas where the demographic trends have most clearly benefitted the Democrats since then.

VA pres result 1996

The election

In the blue corner: key Clinton ally Democrat Terry McAuliffe: he was co-chair of Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election national campaign and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008, and both have been repaying their debts to him. He was also the chair of the Democratic National Committee between 2001 and 2005, before the newer Dean-Obama-Kaine-50 state strategy generation took control of the party.

He previously tried to get the nomination in 2009, but was seen as too much of a Washington politician and lost the primary to the more locally-based Creigh Deeds. McAuliffe probably counts his blessings: McDonnell was probably always going to win given the decline in Obama’s popularity then as the Tea Party first established itself. This time around, McAuliffe has been better organised, and was picked unopposed.

In the red corner: Tea Party favourite state attorney Ken Cuccinelli. He is strongly anti-abortion, anti-gay, and a climate change denier. He has provoked some derision by his call to make oral sex illegal as a form of sodomy.

Ken Cuccinelli oral posters

Cuccinelli was also chosen unopposed, although in less straight forward circumstances than McAuliffe.  The initial frontrunner for the Republican nomination was the more moderate current Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling. Bolling decided to drop out when the Tea Party machine had geared up and he realised he would not win the primary. Bolling is obviously bruised: declining to endorse Cuccinelli and contemplating a role in a McAuliffe administration.

To mix it up a bit, the Libertarian Robert Sarvis has also thrown his hat in the ring.  Polls suggest that he is taking votes from both the other candidates, roughly equally over all.

McAuliffe is ahead in both the polls and fundraising: $26m to Cuccinelli’s $17m.

Cuccinelli’s campaign seems to have taken a big hit from the Republican antics in the House of Representatives across the Potomac River, to the extent that he has tried to distance himself from his Tea Party bedfellows in Washington. The Republican brinksmanship has not gone down well in the Old Dominion: plenty of people in the state owe their living one way or another to federal spending: either because they work in federal government jobs in Greater Washington or because of the military in Hampton Roads. As the two largest voting areas, Cuccinelli is sunk if he haemorrhages votes there.

Things have not quite gone all McAuliffe’s way, however. What might be the most stupid thing the national Democrats could do in the lead-up to an election like this? How about start calling for the local American Football team to change its name for PC reasons? Obama, Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi and others have done precisely that in joining the throng to call on the Washington Redskins to change their name.

This is not a new topic- the team’s name periodically stokes contention. Former Democrat senator for Virginia Jim Webb recalled one in “Born Fighting”, his book about Scots-Irish identity in the South.
Driving in his car listening to a radio phone call in show, an elderly woman rung up with a suggestion. “Why not change the name to the Washington Rednecks: we could all support that!”

Finally, here’s the polls. McAuliffe has maintained a small but remarkably durable lead since July. Things look tight but hopeful for him.

VA sen poll 2013

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