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Virginia Notebook: How The Swing Counties Swung

Tim Craig

In July, Virginia Notebook published a list of 10 Virginia locations that were likely to be up for grabs in the presidential race between Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

At the time, many pundits thought it would be an uphill climb for Obama to become the first Democratic nominee in 44 years to carry Virginia. For Obama to win, he needed to carry many of the 10 locations that we wrote about in the summer.

Now that the election is over, it's time to review the results in those counties and cities. Obama carried seven of them, helping him rack up a statewide lead of nearly seven percentage points.

Below are the earlier explanations of the 10 swing locations as well as the results, based on unofficial returns as of Tuesday.

LOUDOUN COUNTY: Until early in the decade, Loudoun was solidly Republican because of its mix of conservative, rural residents and people who were fleeing the inner suburbs. But the county's rapid growth -- its population has risen by nearly 50.percent since 2000 -- is changing its politics.

In the 2005 governor's race, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) surprised many by convincingly winning the county over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, a former attorney general. A year later, Sen. James Webb (D) won Loudoun over former GOP senator George Allen (R). Democratic gains in Loudoun were reinforced last year, when Democrats secured a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

Many parts of Loudoun remain relatively conservative, and Democratic presidential candidates have not had much luck there. President Bush won Loudoun with 56.percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004, although the number of people casting ballots in the county increased by more than 25.percent between the elections.

But Loudoun voters are among the wealthiest and most educated in the nation, making them one of Obama's prime targets this fall, because he did well with such groups during the primaries. Minorities who tend to vote Democratic could also give him a boost in Loudoun, where 11.percent of residents are foreign-born.

Result: Obama carried Loudoun County by 11,509 votes. Obama received 54.percent of the vote to McCain's 45.percent.

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY: Much like Loudoun, Prince William was once solidly Republican. But it also went for Kaine and Webb, albeit narrowly. Democratic political strategists say Prince William is one of the most difficult Virginia counties to predict. Over the past year, the GOP-controlled Board of County Supervisors has enacted some of the most stringent laws aimed at illegal immigrants in the country.

Last year, county voters gave Democratic candidates cause for worry during state legislative campaigns because polls showed that Prince William was the only place in Northern Virginia where voters weren't responding to the Democratic message.
In recent presidential contests, Prince William has given Democratic candidates slightly better numbers than in Loudoun. Bush won Prince William with 53.percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004.

Obama should start with a solid base because Prince William is about 20.percent black, but McCain could do well among the county's large numbers of active and retired military personnel.

Result: Obama won Prince William County by 25,814 votes. Obama received 57.percent vs. McCain's 41.percent.

RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY: Rappahannock, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a population of about 7,200. But it sometimes stands out on election night electoral maps because it is a Democratic dot surrounded by solidly Republican counties. Bush won Rappahannock by about 350 votes in his two races. In 2005, Kaine won it by 114 votes. A year later, Webb won it by 148 votes.

Result: McCain won Rappahannock County by 122 votes. McCain received 51.percent vs. Obama's 48.percent.

CAROLINE COUNTY: Caroline, with about 27,000 people, is just south of Fredericksburg. It often sways between the two parties. Former vice president Al Gore (D) carried it by 441 votes during his presidential bid in 2000, but Bush won it by 121 votes in 2004. A year later, Kaine carried it with 54.percent of the vote; in 2006, Webb won it by 191 votes. Turnout among African Americans, who make up 29.percent of the county's population, is key to Democratic prospects.

Result: Obama won Caroline County by 1,546 votes. Obama received 55.percent vs. McCain's 43.percent.

HENRICO COUNTY: Richmond's conservative suburbs have rarely flinched from their Republican leanings since the early 1970s. But Democrats are optimistic about Obama's chances this year in Henrico, which surrounds Richmond.

Although it is not growing as fast as some counties in Northern Virginia, Henrico is starting to take on some of the qualities of Fairfax, especially in the western neighborhoods near the Short Pump mall. About 28.percent of the population is black. Bush easily won Henrico x in his races, but Kaine won it by eight percentage points in 2005. (Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, was the local candidate.) In 2006, Webb lost Henrico by 562 votes out of the 101,000 that were cast.

Result: Obama carried Henrico County by 18,942 votes. Obama received 56.percent vs. McCain's 43.percent.

NELSON COUNTY: This mountainous county of 15,000 is southwest of Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville. With a mix of rural voters and transplants from liberal-leaning Charlottesville, Nelson has become a tossup in presidential contests. In 2000, Bush won it by six votes. Four years later, he lost it to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by four votes. Webb and Kaine won it fairly easily.

Result: Obama won Nelson County by 744 votes. Obama received 54.percent vs. McCain's 45.percent.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY: Between the Appalachian plateau and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montgomery includes Blacksburg, which is home to Virginia Tech. Bush carried the county twice, but Kaine and Webb also won it. Results this year could depend on the turnout among Virginia Tech students.

Result: Obama won Montgomery County by 2,001 votes. Obama received 52.percent vs. McCain's 47.percent.

RUSSELL COUNTY: Russell, in coal country in southwestern Virginia, has traditionally been Democratic, supporting Bill Clinton during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s. Since then, Russell and the rest of the region have been trending Republican. Gore won the county with 50.percent of the vote in 2000, but Bush won it easily in 2004. Kilgore, who lived in the region, carried Russell in the 2005 governor's race, but Webb won it by 171 votes the next year.

Given the region's strong ties to the Democratic Party and organized labor, Russell could be an indicator of Obama's appeal to working-class voters in the area. In the Feb..12 primary, he won 14.percent of the vote in Russell, where whites make up 98.percent of the population.

Result: McCain won Russell County by 1,458 votes. McCain received 56.percent vs. Obama's 43.percent.

SUFFOLK CITY: About 80,000 people live in Suffolk, which is in southeastern Virginia on the North Carolina border. The city, which covers 430 square miles, is home to the state's peanut industry, but it is also experiencing rapid suburban growth as people move in from nearby Virginia Beach and Norfolk. African Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic, are 41 percent of the population. Gore carried it narrowly in 2000, but Bush won it with 52.percent of the vote in 2004. The next year, Kaine won it by 10 percentage points; in 2006, Webb won it by 171 votes.

Result: Obama won Suffolk by 3,641 votes. Obama received 54 percent vs. McCain's 45 percent.

VIRGINIA BEACH: With its conservative reputation, Virginia Beach would not have been, in the minds of Democrats, up for grabs in a presidential election, at least not a few years ago. Home to the ministries of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and large numbers of military voters, Virginia Beach went solidly for Bush in 2000 and 2004. But Kaine narrowly won it in 2005, and Democrats picked up two House of Delegates seats there last year.

Result: McCain won Virginia Beach by 1,462 votes. McCain received 50.percent to Obama's 49.percent.

By Tim Craig  |  November 12, 2008; 11:58 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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