Race & Density Explain Virginia’s Politics, Not Woodard’s “Nations”


    ( – promoted by lowkell)

    In the Washington Monthly, author Colin Woodard is trotting out an explanation of the Virginia election based on cultural heritage.

    I’m not talking about “NoVa” versus the Old Dominion, but something much older that suburban Washington: the massive schism between the state’s Tidewater and Greater Appalachian sections, one that has created tensions since the days of the House of Burgesses and, certainly, the secession of West Virginia.

    Is there a deeper East vs. West divide within the Old Dominion, beyond the idea of an urban crescent vs. rural Virginia fight?

    Let’s find out.

    Woodard first points to an analysis of Virginia’s localities based on an urban-rural continuum code used by public health agencies.

    I’ll spoil this right now and raise serious questions about using this continuum code for political analysis.

    The code focuses on access to specialists and other health care professionals, not necessarily density or rural-urban. For a large urban area like the Washington DC metro, it splits the counties into two divisions: core and fringe. The core county is by definition the central city of the metro area, so in this case DC, and ALL other counties, not just Alexandria and Arlington but also Prince William and Loudoun all the way to Fauquier, are assigned category 2. An analysis starting out with a wide assignment to this second category is going to have serious problems.

    When you get to the next category, small metro areas, the code Woodard is using assigns all small metro areas a “3,” putting Roanoke City and more rural counties like Botetourt and Franklin County as the same. Woodard starts off his analysis assuming that Roanoke City is more rural than Fauquier …

    Want to see some better explanations of the vote in Virginia? Check out Huffington Post, which has graphs looking at both density and race.


    The need to have a scale that can show the super-dense localities of Arlington and Alexandria hides a lot of the diversity among the less dense. But there’s a clear trend of more dense localities supporting Terry McAullife. Some of the biggest outliers are easy to explain: Winchester leans slightly Republican but has a higher density as an independent city, other similar cities are Colonial Heights, Salem, and Bristol.

    And race:

    Race explains a lot, especially when you combine with density. The most Democratic, most white localities: Charlottesville, Arlington, and Falls Church, more dense communities. There are few localities that are strongly Republican but with large minority populations, Democrats tend to at least get into the 40% range in Southside rural localities because of a roughly equal black population.

    That last observation is the big clue to what Woodard’s analysis is missing. It’s not that the political culture of Virginia’s first families in Tidewater moderates even the rural counties in the East, it’s that the descendents of the slaves brought over by the planters encourages a more Democratic politics.

    In fact, here are the rural counties won by Terry McAullife: Surry (almost fifty-fifty), Northampton (36.5% black), Prince Edward (35.82% black, college town), Greensville (majority black), and Brunswick (majority black).

    The 2013 Virginia election results are best understood within a broader context of a national electorate that sees Democrats and Republicans increasingly divided not just politically, but geographically too.

    A 2007 study by political scientists Richard Morrill, Larry Knopp, and Michael Brown identified political “anomalies,” like rural counties voting Democratic, or larger cities voting Republican. In 2004, the Republican “anomalies” in Virginia were large populated cities and suburbs voting for Bush, like Virginia Beach, Loudoun, Prince William, or Chesterfield.  These areas have been trending Democratic in Virginia, with not just Obama but now state candidates like Terry McAullife competitive.

    In 2004, the Kerry “anomalies” in Virginia were smaller, more rural counties voting Democratic. They were almost all minority-heavy counties in Southside Virginia with two exceptions: coal heavy, historically union Buchanan and Dickenson in Southwest Virginia, and rural Nelson County, along with smaller suburban county Albermarle outside of Charlottesville. Since that time the former has shifted sharply to the GOP, while Nelson County remains the only mostly white, rural, Democratic county in Virginia. They label Nelson “environmental-progressive” for its political leanings, seeing it as similar to white, rural counties in New England or the Pacific Northwest that similarly lean Democratic. If “political nations” have any role in explaining Virginia’s politics it’s here, not in looking for hints of ancestral planters, that they will be found.

    • Cashelrock

      Every time I read one of these so-called analysis, I immediately look for some mention of economics.  They almost universally omit such consideration.  Many of these areas have “gone Rep” because of drift, a term used to describe politics but is much more applicable to sociology and particularly economics.  It was not too many years ago that union jobs – coal, and manufacturing played an important factor in political affiliation.  Many of these folks, and their children, have moved and those moves have been to urban areas where there is available work.

      Race is still a major factor but we must remember Doug Wilder’s race.  

      Finally, a seminal work on poverty Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry Caudill, (1962) was one of the blueprints for the War on Poverty.  Much of it’s research came from a Ford Foundation study and it is still valid today as I see it being replayed.  If anyone is interested in the book, it is available online https://archive.org/details/ni

    • billk804

      I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the historical tendencies of Virginia.  Have you read Mr. Woodard’s book?  Although density is obviously significant, I think some of the historical cultural settlement patterns help explain what differentiates Virginia from being a typical Southern state and why our politics are wholly different than those, of say, Mississippi.  Jim Webb might be the first to argue is natural connection to the Scotts-Irish heritage in western Virginia gave him an advantage which allowed him to succeed in the primary and general election.  People in rural Virginia aren’t simply voting more Republican because they want fewer people around or are racist; they also have a historical aversion to Government and the Nanny state.  The most recent manifestation of this opposition taking the form of the Tea Party.

      There is a reason the 9th congressional district voted in opposition to the rest of the state historically and had the nickname the “Fighting Ninth”.

    • DJRippert

      All these theories that relate Virginia’s history to modern elections suffer from a common flaw – they over-simplify the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Before reading any modern analyses I’d recommend that a person read the entirety of Virginius Darby’s seminal The New Dominion.

      Essentially, Virginia has long been a philosophical battle between “core Virginia” and the rest of Virginia.  Roughly speaking, “core Virginia” is the Norfolk – Richmond corridor.

      Start with the moniker Old Dominion.  It was a pre-Revolutionary War knickname used by the British to describe the colony that was most like England.  In the context of Virginia’s political elite – centered in Norfolk – Richmond that was right.

      So, what happened?  How did Virginia become the cauldron of revolution?  Well it didn’t happen in Richmond.  Think about Virginia’s Revolutionary War leaders.  George Washington – Fairfax County.  Thomas Jefferson – Albermarle County.  James Madison – Orange.  George Mason – Fairfax County.  Even Patrick Henry moved to Henry County in 1779.

      The major players in Virginia’s Revolutionary War effort were from the hinterlands, not the political center in Norfolk – Richmond.

      This trend would continue through the years.  The “Virginia Way” diluted in concentric rings as you leave its epicenter in Richmond.

      The succession of West Virginia is another concentric circle event.  Not only did the counties to the west leave Virginia so did the counties to the north.  In fact, there were two succession votes.  The delegates came from Virginia’s cities and counties.  The delegations from Fairfax and Loudoun twice voted to stay with the union.

      This is the first vote for succession on April 4, 1861 – http://collections.richmond.ed

      This is the second vote on succession on April 17, 1861 – http://collections.richmond.ed

      As usual in Virginia the political elite centered around Richmond infected the state with its bad thinking.  However, states as far north as Loudoun County and as far east as Northampton County wouldn’t go along with the ass-hats of Richmond.

      Sometimes people from the hinterlands would migrate to Richmond and become part of the Richmond political elite.  That was clearly the case with Harry “Massive Resistance” Byrd.

      Arlington County would integrate its first school (Stratford Jr High School) on Feb 2, 1959.  As a side note, Arlington’s Catholic schools integrated almost immediately after Brown v Board of Education.  Yet the battle over desegregation in the Richmond area public schools only ended for good in 1986 .

      Don’t get confused – the philosophical battles in Virginia have not been East v West, NoVa v RoVa, urban crescent v rural or anything else.  They have been the Richmond political elite vs everybody else.

      And that’s still the battle.  It’s a corrupt state government running the least competitive state legislature elections in the country vs the rest of us.


    • I would also recommend the book ALBION’S SEED for some historical context for the cultural differences between the tidewater and the Appalachians.  Let’s not forget that the Proclamation of 1763 prohibited expansion into the mountains by treaty, effectively closing off land (and wealth) to recent immigrants that the tidewater was happy to bring over as labor.  There was a personal reason many in the western counties were fighting in the Revolution — they were illegally squatting on land they wanted to claim.  (Yes, some of these were my ancestors.  I can claim family from all sides.)  Then throw in the Whiskey Rebellion — distrust of government goes WAAAAY back.