By Paul Goldman
Despite all the (political) scientific evidence, the Richmond Times Dispatch editorial board declared earlier today: “Republicans should be able to take Virginia for granted” in a presidential election.
So much for political evolution. If this had been written in anticipation of the 1980 presidential election, it no doubt would have been true. In 1976, Virginia proved the only Southern State to resist the charms of Democrat Jimmy Carter as the Georgian got revenge over Republicans for Sherman’s burning his way across much of the Southland.
So yes, back then, Democrats in Virginia had not yet evolved to the point of standing erect and walking upright to the polling booth. Ronald Reagan won Virginia in a double-digit landslide over Carter, exceeding the Republican candidate’s national average.
But as Charles Darwin pointed out, evolution occurs over long periods of time, often eluding even the eyes of those trained to see such nuances, like newspaper editors.
In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole barely carried Virginia over Democrat Bill Clinton by 47,000 votes — roughly 2%. Even assuming third-party candidate H. Ross Perot took more votes from Dole than Clinton, this would seem to suggest some political evolution occurring in the Old Dominion.
It is true that 4 years later, Virginia proved to be reliably Republican for George W. Bush, giving him a solid 8-percentage-points win. But the Texan only got about 52.5% of the total vote, as liberal Ralph Nader took a few points from Democrat Al Gore. It turns out Mr. Bush ran better in states like North Carolina and Georgia. Something was going on.
Then came 2004, the high water mark for Republican candidates in what I’ve called the current Bronze Age of the Democratic party. Liberal Northeastern Democratic John Kerry got crushed in Dixie. But once again, states like North Carolina and Georgia were far more Republican than Virginia. Bush got 53.6% in the Commonwealth, compared to a landslide 56% win in the Tar Heel state and nearly 58% in Georgia.
Still, it is true that Bush ran about 3 percentage points stronger in Virginia than nationally in terms of his popular vote percentage. Based on all the fossilized evidence, it appeared the GOP presidential candidate would normally run somewhere between 2-3 percentage points better in Virginia.
By 2008, even the most ardent (political) creationist had to admit the (political) evolutionary truth: Virginia has been evolving since the days of Clinton v Dole. For the first time in the modern era, Republican John McCain’s popular vote percentage in Virginia – 45.7% – roughly mirrored his national percentage. Democratic Barack Obama got almost the same popular vote percentage in Virginia – 52.6% – as his 52.9% nationwide total.
McCain actually won Georgia by 5 percentage points, while barely losing North Carolina in a photo finish.
The RTD, presumably, is saying that 2008 was a total aberration.
Yet even if this is true, how do they deny these years of (political) evolution? Whether they like it or not, it’s simply a fact – Republicans can no longer take Virginia for granted.
Let’s be generous: perhaps the RTD editors were trying to make the point that Virginia should be a bit more Republican for president than the country as a whole? Or, put another way, if Romney is getting 49% nationwide, don’t be surprised if he is winning Virginia with over 50% in a two-way race.
Even Charles Darwin would agree to this being a fair hypothesis, assuming 2008 doesn’t signify a new trend. The interesting (political) evolutionary question this year is whether 2008 was unique, like Wilder’s winning coalition in 1989, or is some “reversion to the mean” about to happen as they say in statistics?
Logically, if Virginia goes Republican in November, then based on the fossilized data from prior elections, North Carolina should also and very possibly Florida. Those are the three key Southern swing states this year.
Political evolution will play a key role in the upcoming 2012 presidential election, whether the RTD acknowledges it or not.