Sabatos Crystal Ball

Kerry Can Win Virginia…But Will He?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics June 3rd, 2004


The Kerry campaign recently stunned the national political community with its announcement that Kerry would seriously contest Virginia, which has not voted for a Democratic nominee since President Lyndon Johnson won a sizeable 53.5 percent in 1964. And then, sure enough, Kerry showed up in Portsmouth, Va., for Memorial Day.

The first reaction was one of disbelief. After all, virtually no one associates the Old Dominion with liberalism of any kind, much less the Massachusetts variety represented by John Kerry. Even Lyndon Johnson finished almost nine points off his national pace in Virginia. But the Kerry campaign claims its private poll shows the Democrat trailing Bush by a single percentage point in Virginia. The table below shows the electoral results for presidential elections in Virginia since 1948.

As analysts put their thinking caps on to consider the Kerry presence in Virginia, several explanations emerged, with some truth to all of them:

  1. The Kerry people were attempting a “head fake,” baiting the Bush/Cheney campaign to spend money in safely GOP Virginia rather than in a truly competitive state.
  2. The target was the Beltway press, who can see the ads as they run in Virginia, with the message being that Kerry has a broader playing field than Bush – undeniably true during these times of Bush’s travails. (The Crystal Ball made precisely this argument at length in March and our Republican readers did not want to accept the argument then, but trends since have proven us correct.)
  3. The Democrats were attempting to capitalize on the presence of a strong ally in the Governor’s mansion, Mark Warner, who has twice triumphed due to a nasty split in Virginia’s GOP to win both his office and a new tax-hike package.
  4. Kerry won Virginia’s Democratic primary against a Virginia neighbor, U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, by a massive 25-percentage point margin, thus creating a building block for November.

With the passage of a week, it appears that these rationales have yet to convince many. So far the Bush team hasn’t bitten, correctly assuming that while Bush is swamped with problems, he’s not yet drowning in Virginia. The press reaction has been mixed, with Kerry cheerleaders promoting the idea but more independent analysts very skeptical. Gov. Warner is indeed a big plus for Kerry, but few believe that his endorsement can win the state for his fellow Democrat. And few are fooled by Kerry’s performance in an extremely low turnout (9 percent of the registered electorate) Virginia primary, populated almost entirely by Democratic liberals.

So that’s it, right? Nice try by the Kerry people, point made, on to better states, correct? Well, not quite.

John Kerry has the possibility of “Kerry-ing us back to ol’ Virginny,” that is, the first half of the 20th century, when the Democrats dominated even presidential elections in the Old Dominion. (The Democrat won every presidential election in Virginia from 1900 to 1948, with the sole exception of Herbert Hoover’s victory in 1928.)

The Crystal Ball must qualify this immediately. Anything is possible in politics, but the probability still is that Bush will win Virginia’s essential (to Bush) 13 electoral votes. Heavy Kerry presence and expenditure in Virginia might get the margin down to a few points, as in 1976, 1992, and 1996, but the last few points are the toughest for any Democrat to find in Virginia, absent a national landslide. On the other hand, given Bush’s emerging weaknesses, the president’s campaign would be foolhardy to take the state for granted. Consider a few electoral facts.

First, the state is changing demographically, just as the Kerry campaign insisted in announcing its strategy. Northern Virginia (NoVa), which is un-Virginian to most downstaters, has grown to a quarter of the vote, with Democrats having a clear edge. At the same time, NoVa is certainly not monolithically Democratic. Loudoun County, Prince William County, parts of Fairfax County, and so on, are still strongly GOP. Downstate, Democrats get a boost mainly from central cities, college towns, heavily African-American localities in the Southside “Black Belt,” and far Southwest Virginia, which is overwhelmingly white but relatively poor.

Second, there’s no question that Republican presidential margins in Virginia have dwindled in recent years. While President Bush Sr. defeated Michael Dukakis by 20 points in 1988, Bush edged Bill Clinton by only 4.4 points in 1992, and Bob Dole won by just 2 points in 1996. Of course, Bush Sr. lost by 5 percent nationally in ’92 and Dole by 9 percent in ’96, making Virginia 9 points to 11 points more Republican than the country as a whole. Bush Jr.’s 8-point victory in 2000 was close to 9 points more GOP than the nation — and this was after a very divisive GOP primary between Bush and John McCain, which Bush also won by only 9 points. And yet if the Gore and Nader votes are added together in 2000, Bush’s winning margin is a somewhat closer 6 points.

Third, the Democrats have not truly contested Virginia since Hubert Humphrey’s loss in 1968, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Carter lost the state by a mere 1.3 percent, but he carried every other Southern state plus all the Border States save Oklahoma. Virginia’s “exceptionalism” has rarely been as obvious.) One could argue that significant Democratic resources poured into Virginia, especially if unanswered by the Bush side, could have an impact. Moreover, a real contest in 2004 would be good for the state as a whole, not just for the TV stations. People want to believe their votes matter, and a vigorously waged battle may bring more voters to the polls.

All this having been said, there is only one convincing and realistic scenario for Kerry’s victory in Virginia. He has to win nationally by a large popular vote margin, period. While Virginia is not nearly as Republican as Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, and a half-dozen other states, it is more presidentially Republican than at least 25-30 states. Therefore, for Virginia to tip into the Kerry column, the Democrat needs a sizeable win that sweeps along states not expected to be available to him.

As June begins, then, President Bush appears not to have an emergency situation in this 2000 stronghold in the South. Yet what does it say that a Massachusetts liberal could make a play for Virginia without being laughed off the stage? Maybe late spring is President Bush’s election year low point, and by November we will look back and marvel that Virginia was ever considered a Kerry target state. But if President Bush does not patch the gaping holes in his campaign ship, we might also look back and see the Kerry announcement as a significant predictor of the November result. Perhaps that thought is what the Kerry strategists really hoped to implant with their unexpected announcement.

Of Wobbles and Snapbacks

Each state is a dynamic political system, constantly changing by means of generational and migratory turnover. Still, the shifts occur slowly in most cases, and states maintain their general position on the party scale from election to election. As in physics, objects at rest tend to remain at rest, so most Red Bush States from 2000 will again be Red States in 2004, and the same with Democratic Blue.

These categories are not absolutely fixed, though, and from time to time a state wobbles, abandoning past allegiances and switching, or nearly switching, sides. In 2000, Democratic strongholds such as Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin almost voted Republican for president, partly because of the Nader vote, but also because of Al Gore’s lack of appeal and lingering unhappiness with Bill Clinton’s absence of moral values. So far in 2004, the natural complement to the wobble seems to be asserting itself, the snapback. In many cases, a state’s wobble in one direction is not indicative of a trend, and in the succeeding election, it snaps back to its previous, “normal†position on the partisan scale. The Crystal Ball sees Iowa in particular as snapping back from its flirtation with the GOP, and Minnesota and Oregon may be as well. (It’s early, so we will need to revisit this closer to November.)

Recent Virginia history, just cited above, may be another example. The Old Dominion wobbled Democratic in 1976 for Carter, but snapped back for Reagan in 1980, staying in place until Bill Clinton drew it closer to the Democratic column in 1992 and especially 1996. Another snapback occurred in 2000, while the Kerry campaign hopes for a wobble in 2004.

As with all academic electoral inventions, reality is not always apparent. New Hampshire used to be rock-ribbed Republican, but it shocked election analysts by abandoning the GOP in 1992 following a tough state recession and Pat Buchanan’s insurgent primary challenge to George Bush, Sr. The wobble continued as Clinton won the state easily again in 1996. There was a snapback to Bush Jr. in 2000. But what will happen in 2004? Kerry leads the latest polls there, and lives next door in Massachusetts–the native state of at least a third of New Hampshire’s residents. If Kerry wins the Granite State in November, will it be a wobble from GOP normality? Or will it be a snapback to a new Democratic stasis established by Clinton a dozen years earlier? (Look at the map; New Hampshire is the GOP’s only remaining presidential outpost in the Northeast, and it’s a weak one.)

Wobble or snapback? New Hampshire’s a headache to figure out just now–and it is far from alone. All will be clear the night of November 2, barring another recount!