This is the fifth part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It focuses on the traditional Democratic base and its decline. The last part can be found here.
In the days of the Solid South, Democrats worried more about primary elections than Republican challengers. The party, under the sway of the Byrd machine, dominated almost every part of the state – as it did throughout the South.
Civil rights and suburban growth broke the back of this coalition. In 1952 Virginia voted for Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower. By the 1970s Virginia had elected its first Republican governor, senator, and attorney general in nearly a century.
Democrats were left with strength in two reliable regions – the southeast and the western panhandle. These places constituted the traditional Democratic base, which Democrats relied on for a number of decades.
The 1996 presidential election provides an excellent illustration of this base:
With his rare ability to command support among both poor Appalachian whites and poor Southern blacks, Mr. Clinton performed powerfully with the traditional Democratic coalition. As the map indicates, the incumbent president dominated the southeast, while winning a number of counties in the panhandle. It is an illustration of the traditional base at a strong point.
Clinton also lost Virginia by two percentage points. This indicates something else: it is actually very difficult to win the state with the traditional Democratic base. There are just not enough Appalachian whites and blacks (20% of the population) in Virginia. Take mostly black, heavily Democratic Richmond. In 2008 a little more than 90,000 votes were cast in the city. A respectable number – but barely more than half the 162,088 votes cast in neighboring, suburban Chesterfield County.
Richmond also constitutes an important part of the Virginia’s Democratic-voting southeast – the first prong of the classical Democratic coalition. Democratic strength in this region can be explained through demographics; the region is home to much of the state’s black population:
Black voters, grateful for its passage of Civil Rights, remain a vital constituency of the Democratic coalition. They constitute a stable block of voters for a Democratic candidate to build upon.
Geographically, Democrats usually win a few rural, majority-black counties in the southeast. In addition, black votes give Democrats sizable margins coming out of Richmond and four Hampton Roads cities – Norfolk (the largest), Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News. In 2008 Senator Barack Obama’s vote ranged from 64% (Newport News) to 79% (Richmond) in each of these cities.
Unfortunately for Democrats, the second prong of their traditional base – the Appalachian panhandle – is quickly moving away from them. This area is fairly rural and somewhat poor; as the map above indicates, its population is fairly homogeneously white. Until recently, Democrats could rely on panhandle votes even in the event of a double-digit loss. Its residents voted Democratic based off a combination of economic interests and tradition.
As the party becomes more metropolitan-based and liberal, however, the panhandle has been drifting away. The election of President Barack Obama, an ill-fit with Appalachian America, has accelerated the rightward movement. In 2009, Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds lost the panhandle by a landslide.
Even in the days in which the panhandle voted loyally Democratic, the base – as has been noted before – was insufficient for statewide victory. Democrats needed to add another prong to their coalition. Mr. Clinton attempted to do so by reviving support amongst the rural whites who’d long ago abandoned the Democratic Party; he mostly failed in his endeavor. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter did much better with rural whites but much worse with their suburban counterparts; Mr. Carter also barely lost Virginia.
Statewide Democratic candidates, on the other hand, have been able to win the state through a combination of the traditional base and a respectable suburban showing. Indeed, no Democratic presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial candidate has won Virginia, for at least two decades, while losing suburban Fairfax County.
In recent years Democrats have traded the Appalachian panhandle for these NoVa suburbs. This switch has, in the aggregate, been to their benefit. The old Democratic base was rarely enough to win Virginia. With the addition of NoVa, Democrats have won three out of four past statewide elections. Virginia has moved from a red state to a purple one.