RICHMOND – The road to the White House winds through a handful of key swing states, and while Virginia enjoys the national attention, voters’ concerns in the Commonwealth are at times different from the electorate as a whole.
Four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia in 44 years.
The state’s results were reflective of Obama’s victory as a whole. Of the 50 states, it was the closest to his national average of 52.9 percent of the vote.
“It is somewhat of a barometer of what’s happening in the country,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
This time around, that Virginia “barometer” isn’t much help in projecting who is favored to win Nov. 6.
Neither President Obama nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has gained a clear advantage despite a blitz of advertising and regular campaign stops, particularly in Northern Virginia.
In the past few weeks, Obama has rallied supporters at George Mason University, first lady Michelle Obama visited Leesburg and Romney did the same, addressing a crowd at Ida Lee Park.
But some of the go-to campaign lines trotted out in other states don’t carry the same weight in Virginia. Think: “We need to get America working again!”
Others, given only a passing mention elsewhere, are a priority in Virginia. Think: mandatory federal spending cuts from sequestration.
National polls show the economy as the runaway key issue in this election. Romney campaigns with a huge banner reading: “We need a real recovery.” Obama talks about spurring manufacturing jobs and rewarding companies that bring back jobs from overseas.
“The jobs issue doesn’t play the same in Virginia, and particularly in Northern Virginia where literally there is almost full employment,” Sabato says.
“For Republicans, the message they’re carrying nationally doesn’t sell well in the most populous parts of Virginia,” he says.
Loudoun County is home to the nation’s highest median household income, and four other counties in Northern Virginia make the top 10.
The state’s unemployment rate remains below 6 percent and about two percentage points below the national average.
“People don’t worry so much about the unemployment number. They’re worried about other economic issues – their housing values, they’re worried about the budget deficit, they’re worried about taxes,” says Stephen Fuller, director of the Center of Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
Though Virginia’s economy may not give Republicans the same kind of built-in line on the stump, absentee ballots suggest GOP voters are outpacing Obama’s in enthusiasm.
Absentee ballot requests in the more rural parts of the commonwealth have noticeably increased, according to Donald Palmer, secretary of the State Board of Elections.
The Virginia Public Access Project compared figures for absentee voting in the 10 most populous localities that voted 55 percent or more for Obama and Sen. John McCain, respectively, in 2008.
In GOP-dominated localities, absentee balloting is up 26 percent – more than three times the increase in Democratic strongholds.
“Of course no one knows who people are voting for in the absentee ballots, but the numbers do suggest the Republicans’ effort to vote early in Virginia is having an effect,” says David Poole, the executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project.
“Nearly two-thirds of the absentee ballots that were cast in 2008 went to Mr. Obama, which meant that by the time the polls opened on election day, he had a 130.000-vote margin over Mr. McCain,” he says.
As a whole, Palmer anticipates turnout to be comparable with 2008, at 65 percent or greater.
“If you have a steady and strong absentee ballot requests coming from individuals in the commonwealth, you’re going to have overall good turnout,” he says.
The call center at the Richmond office of the State Board of Elections further illustrates voter ambition. Palmer reports 2,000-5,000 daily calls, mostly to confirm a registration and polling place.
He expects the call volume to increase leading up to Election Day.
Virginia is tied at the hip to the federal government. According to Fuller, 9.5 percent of all federal payroll and procurement nationwide come to Virginia.
Facing mandatory federal spending cuts in excess of $1 trillion, the region is worried about a devastating economic hit.
“It would take 5 percent of the economy out right away, pretty much across the board,” Fuller says. “This would destabilize the economy, and it would be relatively fast.”
But contractors and sub-contractors are quick to say they already feel the effects.
“We are already being affected in that we know that our government agency customers are delaying decisions because there is so much uncertainty about what is going to be cut across the board,” says Katie Sheldon Hammler, president and CEO of KSH Technology Solutions in Loudoun County.
She describes the holding pattern as a “cycle of havoc” caused by politicians who couldn’t make a deal.
Even if the hope or belief is that Congress will head off the across-the-board cuts, employers are laying out the possibilities, and it’s impacting communities.
“My neighborhood is filled with government contractors,” says Loudoun County resident John Dyer, an undecided voter.
Two of his neighbors recently heard from separate management teams about preparing for layoffs.
“People are very, very concerned, and it definitely has a trickle down effect to a lot of people in my neighborhood,” Dyer says.
Johnny Garcia is the president and CEO of SimIS, a small defense and health care simulation company in Portsmouth.
He’s one of those trying to prepare for the “what if.”
“A lot of the research and development of new technologies come with these small businesses trying to get government contracts,” says Garcia, a Navy veteran. Sequestration is “going to cripple America if that happens.”
“To me, that’s scary,” he adds. “How prepared are we for what our next adversary is?”
One key area in which Virginia mirrors the nation is the appeal to women voters.
While women are 51 percent of Virginia’s population, they make up 54 percent of registered voters, according to the AP.
During two stops in Virginia after the second presidential debate, Romney tried to make inroads with a new campaign theme: Obama has failed women.
His charge was aimed at women who have been hurt economically in the past four years.
However, Obama draws cheers at the mention of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, as well as his vow to continue supporting a women’s right to make her own health decisions.
Laura Barry, attending a senate debate between Tim Kaine and George Allen in Blacksburg, described an issue important to her that doesn’t typically make it into a lot of stump speeches.
For her, the ability and willingness to compromise is paramount in a leader.
“The obstructionism … has been one of the big stumbling blocks,” Barry says.
Some question marks remain over the impact of minorities and those who supported a Democratic candidate for the first time in 2008.
Minorities now make up more than a quarter of all eligible voters (27 percent), and a poll from Latino Decisions finds Latino groups in particular proclaim they could sway Virginia.
Perhaps more difficult to calculate are those who four years ago supported Obama but are now looking for a change again.
“In the last election I voted for Obama for all the wonderful change he was proposing, but in the last four years, a lot of the change actually didn’t happen,” Garcia says.
Though he still identifies himself as an undecided voter, he is now leaning toward Romney.