U.Va. Experts: 2012 Election Shows Virginia Is Demographic Bellwether For Nation

In the 2012 election, Virginia found itself in a new role – as one of the most hotly contested battleground states, a bellwether for the nation.

Once reliably red, the commonwealth voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 2004. But Virginians backed Barack Obama in 2008 and re-elected him Tuesday, due largely to demographic shifts that Democrats have skillfully exploited, according to several University of Virginia experts.

Those demographic shifts – the growing relative importance of non-white and women voters – are here to stay, and must be addressed by Republicans if they hope to reverse Democratic gains. But there is no reason Republicans can’t put themselves on the winning side of those shifts, U.Va. experts argue.

We asked a sampling of U.Va. experts for their thoughts hours after the conclusion of the 2012 election.

• Dustin Cable, policy associate in the Demographics & Workforce Group of U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, and an expert on Virginia population trends.

The biggest news coming out of the election last night was not Ohio, but Virginia. The story of what happened in Virginia exemplifies where our politics in this country now stand. Obama’s repeat victory in the Old Dominion underscores what was probably the biggest factor in the 2012 election: demographics.

Ohio, Florida and other swing states are used to the attention and have been “purple” for a long time now. Obama’s repeat victory in Virginia, however – a state that has voted consistently for Republican presidential candidates before 2008 – is really big news. More than anything else, Obama’s victory in Virginia means that 2008 wasn’t a fluke, but rather represented a fundamental political realignment in the country.

That realignment is bad news for Republicans. The Republican Party has serious demographic problems. Virginia’s shifting demographics, like that of the nation, have been dramatic in just the last few decades, with Hispanics and Asians driving most population growth and changes in the electorate. There’s no doubt minority turnout helped Obama last night.

The composition of the electorate looks a lot like it did in 2008. For instance, blacks accounted for nearly 19 percent of the electorate four years ago, and if you believe CNN exit polling, blacks made up 20 percent of the voters in Virginia this year. This is a remarkable development in the history of politics in Virginia, a state that not too long ago exemplified the Jim Crow South and voter suppression. Virginia exit polls show that Obama won 93 percent of black voters, up from 92 percent four years ago. Moreover, 65 percent of Latino voters voted for Obama – essentially identical to his 2008 support. Asian voters gave Obama 66 percent of their votes, up from 61 percent in 2008. While Obama’s support among white Virginians was only 38 percent in 2012, this represents no real change from 2008 (39 percent).

• Lynn Sanders, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics of the College of Arts & Sciences.

The size and relative importance of Latino, non-white and women voters has been growing for decades, continued to tick upward in 2012 and proved critical to the winning Obama coalition in several crucial battleground states, including Virginia. While Latinos represented approximately 9 percent of the national vote in the 2008 election, and 10 percent in 2012, they made up just 5 percent of the Virginia electorate, according to exit polls. But that 5 percent was crucial to Obama’s victory in Virginia.

This election should make it clear that the Latino vote’s importance is here to stay, and that both parties will be compelled to wage a healthy contest for these voters going forward. Karl Rove acknowledged as much last night when he said that Republicans may need to reevaluate their position on immigration restrictions.

If Republicans can moderate their position on immigration, and creatively tie the position to traditional Republican emphasis on values like individualism, hard work, faith in the power of free markets and resistance to government intervention, the Republicans will see Latinos respond with a new openness and curiosity to GOP positions. If the GOP moderates in response to this election, immigration and outreach to Latinos will be one of the first places that moderation will be expressed.

Non-white voters – African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans – present plenty of natural constituencies for the GOP. These groups tend to have substantial conservative attitudes, particularly related to so-called “traditional” family values and family structures, along with a commitment to religiosity. These all represent openings for the GOP.

• David Leblang, J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance and chair of the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.

The 2012 and 2008 elections have been really interesting in terms of the power of demography over ideology.

As a former resident of Colorado, I witnessed that state transition from being a red state in 2000 to purple and then blue in 2008 and 2012. Virginia is going through the same shift. In both cases, the shift is driven by what look like small blue pockets on national county-by-county election maps. Those blue pockets look small geographically, but they are densely populated areas, like Denver and the Front Range cities of Colorado, and the Northern Virginia exurban counties of Loudoun and Prince William.

What do the people look like in those blue pockets? In general, they are younger, more highly skilled, less white and less male than rest of the state. So that is the challenge for the Republican Party – how to appeal to those groups.

People become increasingly conservative as they get older, while younger people tend to be more liberal for a whole number of reasons. So how do Republicans package an emphasis on fiscal responsibility in a way that appeals to younger voters who are not yet wealthy enough to benefit from the type of tax breaks that Romney emphasized in this campaign? They have work to do, just like the Democrats did after the 2000 and 2004 elections.

• Kyle Kondik, political analyst for the U.Va. Center for Politics and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Perhaps lost – understandably – in the hubbub over President Obama’s reelection last night was the fact that Democrats actually gained seats in the U.S. Senate; they now look likely to hold a 55-45 majority in the upper chamber. This despite the Democrats having to defend 23 seats this cycle to only 10 for the Republicans.

The GOP put up lackluster candidates in states that Mitt Romney carried, like Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota, giving Democrats openings that they never should have had.

While the House remains Republican – Democrats won a handful of seats, but the GOP still will have a comfortable majority – the Democrats’ gains in the Senate will give the president and his party greater leverage in the big budget negotiations that will come up in the next Congress. Over the past two cycles, it’s arguable that poor Republican candidates have cost the GOP at least five Senate seats.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor and the chair of the Department of Media Studies in the College

Let this sink in: The same state that kept virulently racist Harry Byrd in the U.S. Senate to block civil rights legislation, that defended outlawing marriage between blacks and whites before the Supreme Court, that houses the capital of the Confederacy, that was founded by slaveholders, that has a motto what Booth shouted as he assassinated Lincoln, that elected George Allen as governor and senator, has twice voted to put a man of African descent into the White House.

We still have a lot to make up for, Virginia. But this is a good start.

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