RICHMOND, Va. — They say “Virginia is for Lovers,” but the state this year promises to be home to an all-out fight for its 13 electoral votes.
The Commonwealth had voted for the Republican candidate in 10 consecutive presidential elections dating back to 1968. That is until then-Sen. Barack Obama turned the state blue in 2008, beating Arizona Sen. John McCain by more than 6 points. He held the state in 2012, but his margin — over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — shrank to just under 4 points.
Recent polls here show a tight race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with a shade less than three months to go until Election Day. And recent electoral history is replete with examples of races that ended up being a lot closer than polls indicated.
Virginia is key to both campaigns in their quests to win the necessary 270 Electoral College votes. But while Clinton has several paths to an Electoral College victory, a Trump loss in the Commonwealth could seriously complicate his quest for the White House.
“Virginia isn’t one of the top five states in terms of size. It’s not Ohio, it’s not Florida, but it ain’t small either. Those 13 electoral votes could have made the difference in a lot of American presidential elections,” said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at Virginia’s George Mason University, who says growth in the state has shifted its electoral makeup.
“Virginia is changing,” he added. “So you have the Appalachian and the Tidewater regions, which still lean Republican, but this growing behemoth of Northern Virginia that is trending blue, blue, blue and has more people and more money.”
Clinton is hoping to paint the entire state blue again this year, but supporters acknowledge that could be a challenge.
“We’re still a purple state,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who is working closely with the Clinton campaign and wants to make sure potential supporters do not get complacent about the race in the face of bad headlines for GOP nominee Trump. “He is not fit to run our country, but we have to keep reminding people of that. We have to remind our own base of that, because we hear every day, ‘Oh there’s no way he can win.’ We have to remind people that you never know what’s going to happen and it’s our job not to let up on the gas, get our base out and take nothing for granted.”
To help persuade voters, the Clinton campaign and its allies have spent some $4.9 million on TV ads in the state since June 7, while the National Rifle Association has spent $260,775 on behalf of Trump, according to CMAG, an organization tracking campaign advertising spending. Trump’s campaign hasn’t spent any money on the airwaves.
Obama’s double wins were made possible by a strong, neighborhood-based ground game and by Virginia’s changing demographics. Whites make up about 70 percent of Virginia’s roughly 8.3 million people, according to the latest Census estimates, up slightly from 2010. But the African-American population has also inched up half-a-percentage point in that time to almost 20 percent. Asians now make up 6.5 percent of the population — a percentage-point higher than in 2010 — while Hispanics account for 9 percent of the state, up just over a percentage point.
The Clinton team has had staff in Virginia since April and has 28 field offices — with several more opening soon. Much of its focus will be on turning out voters in populous Northern Virginia counties near Washington — places like Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties — an area with a large college-educated population that has grown more diverse in recent years.
They are also aiming to turn out voters in areas with large military populations like Norfolk and even Virginia Beach, a city that went for Romney in 2012 but that Swecker believes could be ripe for a Democratic pick-up this time around. She believes Trump’s recent days-long feud with the Gold Star Khan family, and his belittling last summer of former prisoner-of-war McCain, have provided openings.
“Those kinds of remarks are the types of things that don’t sit well with Virginians,” she said.
The Clinton campaign is also hoping to get a boost from tapping Sen. Tim Kaine for the ticket. Kaine, a popular former governor and ex-lieutenant governor who was also mayor of Richmond, speaks fluent Spanish.
Obama’s popularity could also help Clinton put together the winning coalition that sent him to the White House twice: Younger people, college-educated voters, suburban women and minorities. The president plans to campaign extensively for Clinton and his poll numbers are on the rise — the latest CNN/ORC poll put him at 52 percent, the highest since before his second inauguration, in 2013.
Other top surrogates like former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden will also likely help Clinton rev up the Democratic base.
Trump has said he plans to campaign hard in Virginia, telling a crowd in Ashburn last week: “We are going to be here so much you’re going to be so sick of me. You’re going to say, ‘please keep him out of here, we’ll vote for you, but please keep him out.'”
Much as it is relying on outside groups to promote Trump on the airwaves, the real estate mogul’s campaign is leaning heavily on the Republican National Committee for its get-out-the vote efforts and the group has been on the ground in the state since the beginning of 2015. They now have some 40 paid staffers working with hundreds of volunteers to connect with Republican voters — particularly in Southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia along the North Carolina border.
“We are working right now with our volunteers to identify as many Republicans as we can and then as we move forward in the campaign that’ll become persuasion, motivation and get out the vote,” said Garren Shipley, the Virginia communications director for the RNC. “What we’re doing is trying to make sure we get every single vote from every single corner of the Commonwealth.”
RNC teams are also adopting what they see as some of the “best practices” of Obama’s two successful campaigns here, dividing Virginia into 111 neighborhood areas they are calling “turfs” in order to better connect with voters. That means this year, the person knocking on the doors of potential GOP voters is more likely to be their friend or their neighbor, rather than a stranger dispatched from some distant headquarters — an approach seen as more persuasive.
“The more we have this campaign driven by local issues and local people and give local volunteers ownership of the campaign, we think we’re gonna do much better,” Shipley said.
Shipley added the RNC is also targeting what they see as minorities who could vote Republican and has printed fliers in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean to introduce the party to Asians.
Count to watch
Both sides plan to hotly contest Loudoun County.
Once solidly-Republican, the large, increasingly diverse suburban an exurban county voted for Obama, twice making it a top target.
“I’m going to vote for Hillary, because I think the other guy is a little crazy,” said Randy Coppersmith, a longtime Democrat from Loudoun County. “I think competency is important. She has a lot of experience, she knows what she’s doing.”
Coppersmith said Clinton’s selection of Kaine as her running mate will help her.
But Trump has won support from Lynn Lake, who owns a small business in downtown Leesburg. She likes Trump “because he basically says things like it is. I feel you can trust him more than Hillary.”
The RNC’s Shipley calls Loudoun a “bellwether” county to watch closely.
“I think we’re in good shape in Loudoun County and I think even if it does not swing specifically red, it is going to deliver such a close margin for the Democrats that it’s essentially taken out of play,” he said.
One wild card in the battle for Virginia is the Libertarian candidacy of Gary Johnson, who Mayer expects to do very well nationally, capturing as much as 7 percent of the vote.
“In most Virginia elections, when the Libertarian party gets above 2, 3 percent, that is really bad news for the Republicans and I expect that to be true in November,” he said.
While there is still time for a candidate to notch a significant lead, the race is likely to remain close — and unpredictable here — until the end.
And as the calendar winds down, the fight is sure to heat up as the candidates go head to head in three debates in the fall. One recent college graduate from Loudoun County is looking forward to those match-ups to help him make up his mind.
“I think it will help some undecided voters come to a conclusion on who they think the better candidate is to run this country, said Camron Saeidi. “I’ll be watching them to see how the candidates distinguish themselves from each other.”