Home Virginia Politics Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Eight, Swing Voters

Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Eight, Swing Voters


( – promoted by lowkell)

Welcome to this twelve-part series looking at the challenges, obstacles, and future possibilities of Virginia Democrats. If you’ve missed past diaries, follow these links: Day One, Competitive Districts. Day Two, Turnout Problems. Day Three, Past Mistakes. Day Four, Downstate Democrats. Day Five, Unchallenged Incumbents. Day Six, Present Opportunities. Day Seven, Democratic Trends. For today’s poll, I’m asking about your early support for Governor in 2017.

On the eighth day of Christmas, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave to me …

Swing voters, that crucial demographic of people who voted Romney-Kaine, or Cuccinelli-Northam-Obenshain, or even were crazy enough to go for Sarvis!

In the last half-decade, Virginia Democrats have seen a range of elections that allow us to roughly identify geographic areas of ticket-splitters. I’m talking about folks who came out and voted for Mitt Romney and Tim Kaine. Or switched back and forth in 2013 between Sarvis, Northam, and Obenshain. Or even McDonnell-Wagner-Shannon! It’s all possible.

Obviously, there were far more McCain-Warner voters than there were Romney-Kaine voters. But even though the scale was different, the relative size of these ticket-splitters and where they are concentrated can tell us a lot. For example, the Southwest Virginia delegate districts of the 1st, 9th, 6th, and 3rd had the highest number of McCain-Warner voters in the state. But in 2012, these same districts were still in the top twenty of Romney-Kaine voters. There are ancestral Democrats here, but simply not enough to make seats competitive for our General Assembly candidates.

Even though Kaine and Warner had similar areas of crossover appeal, the degree was significantly different. While Warner ran dramatically ahead of Obama in 2008, Tim Kaine managed only small, but noticeable, increases in his share of the vote in Southwest Virginia and elsewhere. The areas where Warner received his strongest crossover vote tended to correlate with the areas of Virginia where Deeds ran strongest in 2009, relative to the shellacking that McDonnell gave him.

Another trend is that Mark Warner ran most ahead of Barack Obama in the House of Delegates districts that are not remotely competitive. Except for the 12th (Blacksburg), none of Warner’s best crossover districts are competitive seats Democrats are eying in the General Assembly. Interestingly, because of his similar appeal, Tim Kaine’s crossover appeal tells a similarly disappointing story. Although he has more pockets of support around Richmond, and was far weaker than Mark Warner in parts of Southside, Tim Kaine’s largest crossover tends to be in the least competitive districts, except for the 12th (again) and the 34th (Comstock).

In other words, the districts that are closest to Democrats in the House of Delegates are not the districts where Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have significant, broad crossover appeal. But what about in the odd-year elections? There’s an interesting story here, which we’ll get to.

First, we’ll also look at Warner and Kaine in the State Senate districts, as obviously Warner has immense popularity in Phil Puckett’s district. It was also the second best district for Tim Kaine in terms of crossover support. The 10th around Richmond also contained a higher percentage of Romney-Kaine voters (because of Kaine’s background most likely). Maybe we need to deploy Warner for defense and Kaine for offense in 2015? The second lowest State Senate district for Kaine’s crossover was the 29th, Chuck Colgan’s district, in a sign of the polarization of the increasingly diverse community in Prince William.

In 2009, there was more crossover in the most competitive seats. Part of this can be explained by the geography of the candidates. Bob McDonnell probably pulled more voters in Tidewater than a similar Republican, while Jody Wagner increased the crossover back to the Democrats in these same seats.  The 21st in Virginia Beach was a clear example of this trend. But in the 32nd and the 42nd in Northern Virginia, both Wagner and Shannon ran 3% ahead of Creigh Deeds. The crossover is not entirely explained just by the geography of the candidates.

In 2013, we see more variance because of the influence of Sarvis voters. With a small SuperPAC behind him, Sarvis ran strongest in the Roanoke and Richmond media markets. These markets are not home to many of the competitive districts we care about. For example, the 13th, 31st, 32nd, 50th, and 51st had some of the lowest levels of crossover voters (among the statewide offices) in the state. Among competitive seats, only the 100th (attributed to Northam’s influence), and the 94th (an interesting district after this study) stand out for their high level of swings between candidates.

In the 32nd and 31st not only did Terry McAuliffe win, but the Democratic strength continued down to Mark Herring. And in both of these districts, voters showed less interest in swinging back and forth between the three statewide elections than elsewhere. Yet in each district, the local Democratic challenged ran behind the rest of the ticket. Is this because of the shear power of incumbency, or because they had inadequate resources to connect with voters?

Terry McAuliffe has moved the Democratic Party of Virginia in the right direction, focusing our campaigning and appeal in the most competitive districts. On the other hand, our current crop of Senators has personal appeal in the less competitive areas. When you look at the areas with the highest crossover appeal in the last few election cycles, both in the Senate elections and in the odd-year elections, none of them are frontline districts. But they paint an interesting picture:

Virginia Beach & Southern Hampton Roads: 78th, 81st, 82nd, 83rd

Peninsula & Northern Hampton Roads: 91st, 96th, 98th,  

Richmond & Central Virginia: 56th, 65th, 66th, 72nd

Northern Virginia Exurbs: 28th

If Democrats continue to make gains in Northern Virginia, is this the battlefield of tomorrow?

Don’t bet on it; with a few exceptions they remain among the most Republican districts. All of this sets up an interesting contrast between Republicans and Democrats. Over the last decade or more, Republicans have continued to make gains in the parts of the state that are on the decline, particularly Southwest Virginia. But the most successful Democrats in Virginia have struggled to find a way to appeal to significant blocks of voters in the most competitive districts. It creates a General Assembly that is slowly moving towards the Democratic Party, but one that’s at the trailing edge of a wave, and not the vanguard.

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