Romney can’t afford to lose Virginia

By Ford C. O’Connell, Republican strategist and J.R. Hoeft, blogger for

When Mitt Romney stopped in Virginia last week he said, “This may well be the state [that] decides who the next president is.”

At least he understands the stakes.

Barring a collapse by either Romney or President Obama, the popular vote will be close. Major polls are all within the margin of error and likely to stay that way. Romney supporters know they face an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent president. And, now that the primary season is over and Romney has emerged as the nominee, Democrats have begun to heed the call of former Clinton campaign aide James Carville to “wake the you-know-what up.”

But it’s not about the popular vote. It’s about the Electoral College – and there, President Obama has a decided advantage right now. Chris Cillizza, author of The Fix blog in The Washington Post, sees no way Romney can exceed 290 electoral votes. He sees a rough, but doable path for President Obama to win nearly 310.

Almost all prognosticators agree the election is largely over in at least 35 states. Cillizza says it’s largely decided in 43. He says Republicans can count on 24 states with 206 electoral votes and Democrats can count on 19 states, including giants such as California and New York, worth 247 votes. That leaves seven battleground states – Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13).

That’s what makes Virginia so important. If President Obama wins the Old Dominion again, it would mean he could lose Ohio or Florida – perhaps even both – and still win re-election. Romney’s opportunities to flip a state and make up ground – Michigan and Pennsylvania – are longer shots. He must have Virginia to win.

It won’t be easy because both sides expect to win yet know it will require tremendous resources to do so.
Before 2008, Virginia was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. It hadn’t gone for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964. Even Robert Dole, who absorbed a 31-state shellacking from President Clinton in 1996, captured the state by a safe margin.

But by the time the last presidential election rolled around, the Republican brand was in deep trouble in the state. President George W. Bush had seen his hard positives fall into mid-single digits in the centrist 11th District. College students, lured by rhetoric of hope and change and the opportunity to elect the first black president in American history, turned out as never before. Congressional candidates were in trouble even in traditional Republican strongholds. When it was over, Obama had defeated John McCain by 234,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast.

Sen. McCain held his own in the Southside area that abuts North Carolina, the Shenandoah Valley and the mountainous southwest. But President Obama dominated the Golden Crescent, which extends from the Washington suburbs south to Richmond, then east to the Beach area, as has no Democrat in modern history.

Obama not only carried the 3rd (Richmond-Williamsburg-Norfolk) and 8th (Alexandria-Arlington-McLean), traditional liberal strongholds, he took the 11th (Fairfax-Prince William), the heavily military 2nd (Virginia Beach-Eastern Shore) and 4th (Chesapeake-Chesterfield) and even the 10th (Great Falls-Herndon-Loudoun) – which had been one of the most Republican districts in the country as recently as 2000.

Republicans say it will be hard to repeat this success. They point to the Republican landslide in the 2009 statewide elections that swept popular Gov. Robert McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bob Bolling and firebrand conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli into office and the fact Republicans now control both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

They point to success in local elections in Fairfax County, where one in seven Virginians live, as evidence this polyglot jurisdiction with its wealth of corporate headquarters could respond to Romney’s economic and pro-business appeals. They say the Richmond suburbs, where McDonnell won by even larger majorities than House Majority Leader Eric Cantor usually enjoys, as evidence the Republican brand is back in the state’s sprawling and growing suburbs.

But Democrats have plenty of cause for optimism as well. After all, they can claim to have flipped a half-million votes in the last presidential election – going from a 262,000-vote loss in 2004 to a 234,000-vote victory in 2008.

Moreover, Fairfax-Prince William has elected Gerry Connolly, a left-of-center Democratic congressman, for two terms now, and he is a shoo-in to win again in 2012. The 10th, where Loudoun remains one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, continues to trend blue. Large Latino communities – which traditionally vote Democratic – have emerged in the Richmond suburbs, particularly in Chesterfield and Mechanicsville, which could help curb Republican margins of victory in those areas.

And the state is becoming more urban throughout, which also could contribute to Democratic success. Even the 6th District, which hugs I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, saw its margins of victory for the Republican presidential ticket cut from 76,000 in 2004 to 48,000 out of 320,000 cast in 2008.

So, what can Romney do to win? He’ll get some help from turnout, which should fall from its historic high of more than 70 percent in 2008 down to traditional levels in the high-60s. Other trends – big business is emerging as a critical anti-Obama force, and big business has become much bigger in Northern Virginia in the last four years – also will help.

But Romney must hold down margins in the districts where he won’t win – the 3rd and 8th. Obama doubled the Democratic margins of victory there from 2004. He must clobber the president in the 1st, 6th, 7th and 9th. Romney must also reassert control over the military-heavy districts in Hampton Roads, and he must compete in the Washington suburbs.

And he’s actually not a bad candidate for that last proposition. He should keep the focus off social issues and on a strong economic message that highlights entitlement reform, economic growth, energy production – a proposal to drill for oil off Virginia’s coast enjoys broad support – and the failure of the Obama administration to address energy or the economy.

It can be done. It won’t be easy. But failure is not an option.

O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign, is chairman of CivicForumPAC, an organization that promotes conservative activism. Hoeft is a blogger turned publisher of the online conservative magazine

This column originally appeared at The Hill’s Congress Blog on May 11.

Reference Links:
Romney’s stop in Virginia

National polling – Obama v. Romney

James Carville

Larry Sabato – Electoral College is what matters

In at least 35 states

Chris Cillizza – Romney 290 Electoral Ceiling

Team Romney aware of fewer paths to 270

Helene Cooper – Virginia is key

Virginia trending blue

Virginia State Polling – Obama v. Romney

Obama’s organizing advantage

2008 Virginia General Election Results

2008 Virginia General Election Results by Congressional District

Other years Virginia voting statistics

Voter turnout likely to be lower than 2008

  • JayD

    Interesting read JR, but way too early to predict plus you forgot a couple of things that could make the difference between win/loss if the race is tight:
    – Wisconsin’s 10 votes, completely up for grabs until June.
    – The 2 parties have significantly different ground games; the few %age points needed to win may come simply from which campaign strategy was slightly better.
    – Also possible Gov. Bob and his republican-controlled VA legislature may have alienated just enough women, young people, city-folk, and independent voters to swing VA in favor of democrats. (Also reason why BMc is NOT on the VP shortlist.)
    – If George Allen loses his race he could drag Romney down with him.

    Only fer sures: lots of $$$s will be spent in VA and this will be the nastiest race in my lifetime. Just my 2¢.

  • Tim J

    We now know why Obama has been pandering to every interest group to raise the big bucks needed to run his campaign – bribes…

  • kelley in virginia

    how ’bout ya 5CD? we did not go for Obambi in ’08 nor will we again in ’12.

    Robert Hurt will win re-election & Gov/Sen Allen will also take the 5th.

    We are Virginia’s paradise

  • MD Russ


    I have to disagree with a couple of points. First, the 11th CD. Gerry Connolly won reelection by less than 1,000 votes. Romney is far less conservative than Connolly’s Republican opponents have been and will attract more Independents in Fairfax County. Second, Republicans swept every election in Loudoun County last year, even replacing a popular and long time Independent Supervisor in Jim Burton. That is hardly “trending blue.”

    Kelley, I have cousins out in Franklin County and you are correct–the 5th CD is Virginia’s paradise.

  • Jamie Jacoby

    “And, now that … Romney has emerged as the nominee”

    Therein lies the rub, friend. Miami promises to be interesting. Links provided if anyone here is interested.

    And if Romney does emerge with the nomination, how is he going to energize anybody and get out the vote? The R’s, including prominent Virginia R’s, want to present us with a vote against Obama, instead of a vote for someone we can, without too much overt fantasizing, believe might actually change something, might actually have a clue, might actually get the federal government regulatory state out of the way and “allow” the economy to grow, produce wealth, and produce jobs.

    What are the chances of that?

  • Tim J

    Now that Obama has emerged has been outed as the first “gay” president, Romney will has a huge disadvantage with the LGBT community…

  • Enjoy Miami, Jamie. In the meantime, I’m pretty sure most Republicans will be in Tampa.

    I really admire you, Jamie. If Dr. Paul emerges as the nominee, I will definitely support him – as I hope all Republicans support the Republican nominee.

  • Nathan Miller

    It is going to be interesting to watch. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see Romney winning VA.

    I think the senate race is going to be one of the closest VA has ever seen.

  • Question

    Virginia’s Paradise?

    You do realize that the 5th CD has the 2nd lowest in high school graduates among the state’s Congressional Districts, 3rd lowest median household income, and 4th highest unemployment rate?

    That sound like paradise to you?

  • SWilliams

    And this is the reason for the GOPTs tidalwave of nationwide voter ID legislation push….

    “So, what can Romney do to win? He’ll get some help from turnout, which should fall from its historic high of more than 70 percent in 2008 down to traditional levels in the high-60s”

  • Steve Vaughan

    I think the point of the original post, that Virginia is a “must win” for Romney, is exactly right. Republican electoral strategy is Solid South and then win Ohio or Florida.
    The fact that it’s not only a presidential year, but the state has a high profile U.S. Senate race, is going to boost turnout, although probably not to 2008 levels. I think higher turnout bodes well for Obama/Kaine. Romney could get some help from Allen.
    It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone splitting their ticket here… there are no Obama/Allen voters. I suppose there might be Romney/Kaine voters…but not many.
    My guess is whoever wins the Senate race also carries the state in the presidential election.

  • Natedogg614

    I would argue that Virginia is going to be must-win for both Obama AND Romney. I also think that whoever carries Virginia will likely carry the election.

    Moreover, I would not be surprised at all if the Senate race is decided by only a few thousand votes and will likely play a key role in determining which party controls the upper chamber come January 2013.

    With respect to Loudoun County, of which I am a resident, I’ve noticed that the county’s voting bloc has swung in both directions in the past several years, more recently towards the Republicans. Whether or not that translates for the GOP this November — time will only tell. I am convinced, however, that due to its population growth and the white-collar suburbanites that reside in it (which is a key swing voting-blog) my neighbors and are are likely to get hammers with mailings, commercials, door-to-door canvassing, and telephone surveys. Should make for an interesting 6 months!

    Not to put Loudoun as THE key county (as there are plenty of important counties across the country that will help sway the election one way or the other) but I would not be surprised if the party that carries Loudoun will carry Virginia, and the party that carries Virginia will carry the election. Could be interesting to watch (and we’ll see if that comes to pass).

  • Steve Vaughan

    Nate: Virginia isn’t as important for Obama because there are more paths to an electoral college win for a Democrat that don’t involve winning Virginia. (Clinton was elected twice without winning Virginia).

  • You got it, Steve. That’s what Ford and I were trying to convey.

    My hope in writing this was to show Romney must win Virginia and then demonstrate that it’s hardly an easy thing for him to do.

  • Steve Vaughan

    JR-Raises the possibility late in the campaign that Tim Kaine could get an ugly surprise from the Obama campaign…the news that they care less about carrying Virginia than Romney does.

  • JayD

    Steve,FYI … When Gubernatorial races are held in same year as Presidential, voter split can be as high as 50%. In Congress/Presidental years, we’ve gone as high as 30%, but I believe modern average is running btw. 17-19%. All of this gets tracked & you can find it on the net. Many different studies to figure out the “why”; my preference is the valence vs. policy voters model.
    If 17% of VA voters split ticket (and the split-tickets favor one direction), 200-500,000 votes in a very tight race is statistically significant.

  • I already wrote to J. R. about the “likeability factor” and he will perhaps develop that thought further. Polls have consistently shown that people LIKE Obama while they do not APPROVE of his job performance.

    That’s one thing. But do people even like Mitt Romney? (No.) And can you poll his job performance? Based on what? Bain Capital? (No) Governor of Massachusetts (No.) Chairman of the Olympics (Probably a read my lips maybe.)

    Obama is a likeable person. So is Tim Kaine. So is George Allen. This really may well boil down to Virginia.

  • JayD

    Craig, “likeability factor” isn’t the same as valence characteristics. If you don’t know the difference you can’t understand how/why almost 20% of the vote could go split-ticket (according to historical statistics) or why the most likely, IMO, split ticket in VA2012 will be Romney/Kaine rather than the reverse.

  • Steve Vaughan

    Jay D: We absolutely agree that the most likely split ticket is Romney/Kaine. I don’t think there will be a lot of those, but certainly more than Obama/Allen. I can’t concieve of who an Obama/Allen voter would be. The mind boggles. But I can see someone who isn’t happy with the way things are going in Washington but still hold Allen’s lackluster Senate term or “Macaca” against him voting Romney/Kaine.

  • JayD wrote:

    “Craig, “likeability factor” isn’t the same as valence characteristics”

    Boy, JD, you are so clever to introduce introduce us into the world of “valence” which used to be a word for curtains: I just love how google defines it:

    Is this seriously what you meant? Can you explain it? I gaurantee you 20% of the voters are NOT going to get this.

  • JayD

    Oops. Sorry Craig, not meaning to be clever, just quick. Yes, it’s one of the geeky social science/ econ terms now used in political studies ~ an abbreviation for a grouping of candidate characteristics and impressions that voters make judgments about when determining their pick that are different from public opinion on policy issues.

    For instance, when voters are asked if they think Romney would do a good job of handling the economy, that poll question is measuring a valence characteristic… capability. Here’s a brief blog post that will shed more light:
    And a very un-fun to read study paper – check out the first few intro paragraphs and you’re good to go.

    Re. split-ticket voting, the 17% isn’t mine, it comes from ANES studies:
    Voters don’t have to “get this” to do it. 🙂

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