Bellwether by the Sea

Jamelle Bouie

This is part two of the Prospect’s weeklong series on the swing districts that could determine the national outcome on November 6.

In a tiny Virginia Beach office belonging to Scott Rigell, an auto dealer who swept into Congress on the 2010 Tea Party Republican wave and is running for re-election, volunteers for Mitt Romney gather for a morning of voter outreach. Dunkin Donuts and coffee are available for those interested—namely, kids there to help their parents. “Vaaah Beach” (as its known to locals) is my hometown, but I’m unfamiliar with this particular neighborhood, a development of McMansions in a wealthy area called Bayside, since it’s 20 miles north of Pungo, the rural patch of town where I went to high school. 

Yes, 20 miles. One of the odd things about Virginia Beach is its vast size. Located in the southeast corner of Virginia and part of the larger metropolitan region called Hampton Roads, it touches the ship-building city of Norfolk and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and reaches down to the North Carolina border; along its eastern edge runs the Atlantic coast with endless beaches defined by a redneck surfer vibe—pickup trucks with Confederate flags, carrying surfboards instead of gun racks. 

If for some reason you wanted to drive from one end of the city to the other, this would take you a full hour, even without traffic. For the first 17 miles—from the border to the outer suburbs—you would drive through forests and fields, past the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, hitting a single stoplight. If you went east, toward the water, you’d pass a giant metal ape—the mascot for “Ocean Breeze Waterpark”—and cruise through Oceanfront’s resorts and overpriced restaurants. Your other choice would be to drive northwest, through the middle of the city, making your way past Oceana Naval Air Station, where all sorts of military aircraft reside when not in use, and Regent University, conservative evangelist Pat Robertson’s monument to himself. 

If you spend enough time in the area, you’ll get used to a few things: The constant jet noise (i.e. “the sound of freedom”), the countless people in uniform, and the fact that it’s impossible to find a cup of coffee and sandwich in any place other than Panera Bread.

Virginia Beach has also been settling lately into a new identity—a key bellwether district in a state that’s proving critical to both Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s chances. If Romney doesn’t win the Commonwealth, he has to run the swing-state table, which despite his recent gains is still a long shot. From Obama’s point of view, along with polling in Ohio it’s the numbers in Virginia that have helped keep him above 270 electoral votes in the projections for most of the year. Since the first presidential debate, however, Obama has seen his fortunes decline in Virginia. He is now tied with Romney at 47.4 percent, down from 48.5 percent. 

Virginia Beach could make the difference. Politicians who win statewide tend to win the city—or at least to perform well. In 2004, it went for George W. Bush by the huge margin of 59.1 percent to John Kerry’s 40.2 percent. With high turnout and enthusiasm four years later, Obama dramatically narrowed that margin, losing it by less than a percentage point, 49.2 percent to John McCain’s 49.7 percent.  

 

Despite its status as a swing district, Virginia Beach has a conservative lean typical of places where the military leaves a heavy footprint. But there’s a slight schizophrenia to the way people call for small government while working in an economy driven by federal spending. Remember Romney in August, introducing his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, to a crowd of adoring fans at a shipyard in nearby Norfolk. It was hard not to the miss the irony of Romney and Ryan denying that the government creates jobs, while speaking in front of war ships and other testaments to the government’s ability to create jobs.

Jamelle Bouie

Virginia Beach is fairly young—chartered in 1963—and, like most Southern cities of its vintage, sprawling and dominated by cars. By both population (442,707) and size it’s the largest city in the Commonwealth. 

Many people here have a military connection, and many, my family included, moved here from somewhere else, settling inside the city but in a neighborhood that looks like a suburb. Today, the second Saturday in October, I’m out canvassing with two Romney volunteers, a mother-daughter team: Elizabeth and Bella. Elizabeth is a strongly identified life-long Republican who seems like she would be actively supporting whichever candidate the party nominated. Bella can’t vote—she’s still in high school—but she’s a longtime volunteer. “Her first campaign was in 2000, for George Bush, and she was also only four years old,” says Elizabeth. “She gave out 4,000 pieces of literature—with supervision, of course.” For Bella, Romney’s old-fashioned persona is part of his appeal. “I like that he is a good father to his sons—it makes me think that he’ll take care of the nation, and the debt, so that my generation won’t have to pay for it.”

After living in Washington, D.C, for more than four years, I’ve forgotten that single families, or even just couples, live in homes that could house five or six times as many people. The houses in the development where we’re canvassing come in three models, red brick, darker brick, and distressed-white brick; each has a three-car garage and a sports car or SUV in the driveway. As we walk the block, there is a certain Leave it to Beaver feel to the entire exercise, due to both the clear, sunny weather and the demographics.

Simply put, we’re in something like the platonic ideal of a Republican community. Everyone who answers the door is white, middle-age, and for Mitt Romney. (One woman proudly explains how this made her something of an outcast at the school where she works—especially after she flew a makeshift Romney banner the day President Obama came to speak.)

It should be said that this neighborhood is not particularly representative of the area—because no single neighborhood is. Virginia Beach’s population is like the state’s writ small. Just under two-thirds of its residents are white, with the remaining third divided between African Americans (20.1 percent, compared to 19.8 for the state as a whole), Latinos (7 percent versus 8.2) and Asian Americans (6.3 percent, versus 5.8). 

African Americans have long had a presence in Hampton Roads; the area was an antebellum center for slave trading, and a large black population has remained ever since. Latinos and Asian Americans are relative newcomers: The Hispanic population increased by more than 63 percent from 2000 to 2010, and the Asian American population grew by nearly 30 percent. Interestingly, the bulk of Asian Americans in Virginia Beach is Filipino, reflecting Filipino overrepresentation in the armed forces.

After decades of reliable Republican majorities, it was diversity that brought Virginia Beach within a percentage point of supporting Barack Obama in 2008. This was mostly due to the campaign’s efforts to register and turn out minority voters on a massive scale. It was a variation on the strategy that had already brought Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to the governor’s house in 2001 and 2005: Increase Democratic turnout in key areas (Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads), while presenting oneself as an effective technocrat to suburban whites and a culturally acceptable alternative to white rural voters. Obama’s victory was, to some degree, the fruit of a decade-long effort to make Virginia competitive for Democrats.  

That said, Democratic gains in Virginia are highly dependent on turnout. In 2009, low Democratic turnout helped Republicans sweep statewide races, electing Governor Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. McDonnell won Virginia Beach by 11 points, foreshadowing 2010 midterm elections in which Republicans would make gains in every area of the state, including the Beach, where a Blue Dog Democrat, Glenn Nye, would lose to challenger Scott Rigell.

This year, Virginia has been incredibly close. In the U.S. Senate race, Kaine has been fighting a tight contest against former Senator George Allen, who lost his 2006 reelection race to Jim Webb. (Webb decided to step aside, leaving the seat open.) Kaine holds a slight lead over Allen—2.6 points, according to the Huffington Post’s Pollster average—but the race could easily slip back into a dead heat, and Kaine is dependent on the Obama coalition for victory.

The urgency is not lost on Democratic volunteers. The day after my travels with Team Romney, I spend time with Obama volunteers in Norfolk. The original plan had been to canvass in Virginia Beach, but the change of target makes a certain amount of sense. Norfolk is home to several schools and universities, among them Old Dominion and Norfolk State, and it has a large African American population. Today’s volunteer event, in the parking lot of the main Norfolk campaign office, is headlined by a few VIPs. Representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina and Bobby Scott from Virginia’s Third District (taking in most of Richmond, all of Portsmouth, and parts of Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News) are joined by General Wesley Clark, former NATO commander and Democratic presidential candidate. Clark begins with words of encouragement to the assembled volunteers, a mixed-race, mostly young crowd, and segues into an attack on Mitt Romney’s approach to national security. “All he does is say, ‘I’m really tough!’ And when someone asks, ‘What would you do?’ he says, ‘I’d think about it really hard!’”

After the speeches, I join Clark and three other volunteers to walk a block near downtown Norfolk, an area filled with the working-class African Americans who gave Obama overwhelming margins in 2008. The 1960s-vintage homes here are old compared to the homes I canvassed with the Romney team in Virginia Beach. Also—and this might have something to do with it being midafternoon—the neighborhood feels more active. There are people on porches, riding bikes, walking down the sidewalk. Hell, there are even sidewalks. Everyone we meet is planning to vote for Obama, as well as Kaine and Scott. But I laugh a little as Clark goes from house to house and introduces himself. No one knows who Clark is, at all. The typical scene goes like this:

“Hi, I’m General Wesley Clark.”

“Okay.”  

 

It’s worth noting the differences in how the campaigns approach voters. The Romney volunteers are straightforward—they identify themselves, ask if they can count on the resident’s support, and leave contact information. The Obama volunteers start conversations that can last ten minutes. They confirm the number of people living in the house, make sure everyone is registered, explain how to vote absentee, and ask each person if he or she can volunteer. The information collected will be essential as the campaign works to bring all its supporters to the polls. 

The Romney campaign notes that it has made four million voter contacts in Virginia. It’s unclear how productive those contacts will turn out to be. Still, on a strategic level, the campaigns are taking a similar approach. At this point they aren’t trying to persuade holdouts so much as they’re trying to engage supporters—as many as possible. Which makes sense: Virginia’s move from blood red to deep purple has more to do with changing demographics than changing ideologies. 

Between the campaigns and their allies, $133 million has been poured into the state so far. According to a study in The Washington Times, the Norfolk/Portsmouth/Newport News area extending down to Virginia Beach is the third most targeted media market in the country for the Obama campaign—and the first most targeted for Team Romney. It’s not hard to see why. If Obama can run up the score in Norfolk, and eke out something within a point or two (maybe three) of a tie in Virginia Beach, he’ll be in good shape. By contrast, a bigger margin of loss in Virginia Beach for Obama—less than 47 percent, say—would bode poorly for his performance throughout the Commonwealth. 

Despite its relative obscurity, this is an area that’s critical to the outcome of this presidential election. At the moment, the race is a dead heat. That will change, and between now and November 6, I’ll be watching to see who benefits.

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