August 11 had been a long day. By about 5 p.m., when the Romney for President bus reached this Washington suburb, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had traveled over 200 miles throughout Virginia. The new Republican ticket had held big rallies in Norfolk and Ashland, north of Richmond, ensuring plenty of coverage in the state’s three largest media markets. For the final rally, Ryan walked onstage to big cheers and took the microphone. His shoulders slumped a little. His voice was hoarse. He stumbled through his closing lines.
“When we do this, we’re going to get this done, and we’re going to do it because we have a man who’s running for president who has the courage, the integrity, the honesty, the experience,” Ryan said. Even for a guy who sleeps only a few hours in his congressional office at night and works out daily, the breakneck schedule was exhausting.
But if Romney and Ryan expect to defeat Barack Obama and Joe Biden in November, they will almost certainly have to carry Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, and that will almost certainly mean more long days campaigning across the Old Dominion. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Obama leading Romney in Virginia by 0.7 percentage points, markedly down from the 7-point margin by which Obama defeated John McCain there in 2008. Most observers agree Virginia will remain tight. In other words, Romney and Ryan have a lot of work to do here in the final three months of the race.
It wasn’t always this hard for Republicans in Virginia, at least at the presidential level. Between 1952 and 2004, the state voted for the Republican ticket every time but once, in 1964. But the state has become less conservative and less rural, and Obama won it in 2008, thanks to big gains in Northern Virginia and increased voter participation among blacks and young people. Now, Virginia looks more like Ohio or Florida—a battleground state where campaigns have to fight for every independent vote.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says the task for Romney is to put the “pieces of the puzzle” together: the Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Washington suburbs and exurbs, along with the rural regions of southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, and Southside. “The rural areas are still 20 percent of the vote in Virginia,” Sabato says, and the people there are conservative. The difference this year is that Republicans in these parts of the state are more motivated than they were in 2008. Maximum turnout among rural Virginians could make all the difference.
What about gaining support from independents in the suburban and exurban areas? The Romney campaign is finding inspiration in Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s popular Republican governor, who won in 2009 by 18 points. McDonnell won 53 percent of Northern Virginia voters just one year after Obama won the region with 59 percent. That doesn’t mean Virginia’s guaranteed to go Republican again; voter participation is much higher in presidential elections among groups that tend to vote Democratic. Still, Romneyworld sees a lesson.
“Bob McDonnell ran the model campaign,” says Ed Gillespie, a Romney adviser and veteran of Virginia politics who chaired McDonnell’s campaign. McDonnell focused on kitchen table issues like jobs and the economy to appeal to independents in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. Gillespie says Romney can win those independents with economic issues, too. A recent poll from WTOP radio in Washington shows Romney trailing Obama by only 2 points—48 percent to 46 percent—in Northern Virginia. Romney’s jobs-centric message, that “Obama isn’t working,” could be keeping the region competitive.
Not surprisingly, Democrats still believe the overall environment gives Obama an edge in Virginia. “The president is marginally in the driver’s seat,” says one Virginia Democratic operative. Demographics, he says, are one factor. Hispanics are a growing share of Virginia’s population, as are young people, particularly in Northern Virginia. And in regions like Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, where the local economy is tied closely to the federal government, Ryan, the symbol of budget-cutting Republicans in Congress, could scare away voters.
That all may be true, but the Obama campaign’s plan for Virginia mostly mirrors its national strategy: Turn out the Democratic base. One Obama advertisement found in Washington Metro stations in Northern Virginia illustrates this goal. “Do I believe the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade? Yes, I do,” the sign quotes an ominous-looking Romney. Below that reads, “Mitt Romney: Too extreme for Virginia.”
Furthermore, the Obama campaign has 27 field offices throughout the state, including 9 in Northern Virginia, 8 in Hampton Roads, and 3 around the college town of Charlottesville. Says the Democratic operative, “I think the Republican base is more energized than they were before, but Democrats are more organized.”
But it’s hard to look at the crowd in Manassas and think Republicans don’t have a good chance. Thousands stood out in the hot August sun, waiting in lines wrapped around several blocks, to get a chance to see Romney and Ryan. Supporters spilled out of the expansive pavilion and into the streets. Those who couldn’t get close enough to see the stage could watch the rally on a big screen erected on one corner. Governor McDonnell took to the stage to introduce Romney and Ryan, and the audience hailed in excitement. Folks in the back craned their necks to get a look. McDonnell quoted a pledge President Obama made at a recent campaign stop nearby.
“He said, ‘If we don’t win Virginia, I’m not going to be president again,’ ” McDonnell recounted. “Let’s make that a promise he can keep.” The cheers grew into a roar and the folks in the bleachers stamped their feet. To these Virginians, at least—and to a tired Paul Ryan—that sounded pretty good.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.