U.Va. Demographers: Virginia May Be Turning Blue, But Who Shows Up to Vote Is the Wildcard

Demographics researcher Dustin Cable(Photo by: Dan Addison)

Republicans have history on their side in this year's presidential election, but long-term demographic trends – if reflected in voter turnout among Virginia's increasingly diverse population – may work against Republican prospects says a study released today by the Demographics & Workforce group at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The study, "Red State, Blue State: Demographic Change and Presidential Politics in Virginia," analyzes leading demographic trends that are changing the face of the population – and the potential pool of voters – in Virginia, one of the most closely watched battleground states in the upcoming election.

Four years ago, Virginia voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964. The study asks: "Was 2008 an aberration, or a herald of change?"

"Many political analysts have suggested that recent demographic shifts have transformed Virginia from a solidly red state to a blue state," said Dustin Cable, the researcher who initiated the study. "We were interested in whether demographic data actually supports these predictions."

The study identifies several major demographic trends reshaping Virginia's political landscape, among them:

• Racial and ethnic minorities will gain as much as 2 percentage points in their share of eligible voters from four years ago, thanks in large part to growth in Virginia's Hispanic populations.

• Northern Virginia's electoral influence continues to grow. The region may account for one-third of all votes cast in 2012, up from just over one-quarter of votes cast in 2008.

• Growth in the population of Virginians over age 60, coupled with high turnout rates among this group, suggests an increasing impact of older Virginians on election results. The 18- to 29-year-old population is growing as well, but historically has been less likely to vote.

"While many demographic changes, such as Virginia's growing diversity, would at first glance seem to work against Republican prospects, Democrats have had considerable difficultly capitalizing on these trends and mobilizing their supporters to vote," study co-author Michele Claibourn said. "One of the reasons Virginia went for Obama in 2008 was that many traditionally low-turnout groups showed up at the polls at higher rates, particularly blacks and young voters."

The study also projects what these trends might mean for the 2012 presidential election and suggests possible strategies for the two campaigns. By analyzing 2004 and 2008 election results and voter participation, the study details how demographic changes, voter turnout and support will interact to determine the outcome this November. Four simulated outcomes are presented, with Romney and Obama winning the state in two simulations each.

"With growing and diverse core constituencies, Obama must mobilize them to turn out and vote, despite a struggling national economy," Cable said. "Romney, however, is working from a solid foundation of supporters who can be counted on to show up to vote; namely, the elderly, white men and the affluent. But he can't win with their support alone, he will need to make inroads among some of Virginia's expanding populations, particularly Hispanics and the college-educated, Northern Virginia whites that Obama won in 2008."

The study and other related resources can be found here.

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