Politics Counts: Roadtrip Explains Tight Race in Virginia

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Of all the toss-up states left in the 2012 campaign, Virginia may be the most difficult to get a read on. Driving across the complex mix of communities, economies and politics is like driving through several different states.

The growth and increasing power in the moderate, left-leaning suburbs of Washington, D.C., has pushed the state more firmly into the battleground column in the past few elections. But it doesn’t take long to get into territory dominated by socially conservative evangelical voters or to reach the state’s socially liberal college center and the large pockets of military and veteran voters on the southern shore.

Somewhere in that mix is a formula of support, turnout and enthusiasm for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that will determine who will carry Virginia and its 13 electoral votes. But as polls have shown, figuring which way the state will break is not easy and with just days to go before Election Day, the vote in Virginia seems remarkably fluid.

Shenandoah

Twenty miles from the West Virginia border in the town of Broadway (pop. 3,700), there is no question about who will win the vote. Sen. John McCain carried surrounding Rockingham County with 67% in 2008, and judging from the signs on the street, Mr. Romney’s supporters outnumber Mr. Obama’s by a factor of four or more.

But the question is enthusiasm and some here feel that hard economic times may push the vote even stronger toward Mr. Romney in 2012. The town has never been wealthy – the median household income is about $45,000 – and it has taken a hit in recent years as the construction market has dried up. A new subdivision just off Main Street marked with streets named for Republican presidents – Harding, Buchanan, Eisenhower, Bush – is full of “for sale” signs along with yard signs for Romney.

Brenda Whitmore, an owner of the local Ben Franklin Crafts store, is emptying half of her retail space so she can rent it out. She says her business has been dropping, 22% a month on average for over a year. She’s not overly excited about either candidate, but says she is leaning toward Mr. Romney because, “a change may bring a breath of fresh air and give people some hope.”

And beyond the economy a strong strand of Christian conservatism runs through Broadway and Rockingham. WBTX, a Christian radio station, broadcasts from Main Street and the car parked in front of it bears the license plate GOD ROCS. Across town, Donnie Owen, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, says moral and social issues will be driving him and his flock to the polls.  “I would never use the sacred desk, the pulpit, to tell people who to vote for,” says Rev. Donnie Owen, pastor of the Broadway Baptist Church. “But I am holding voter registration drives. We are going to vote.”

Rev. Owen is not particularly pleased that Mr. Romney is a member of the Mormon Church. In fact, he recently used some time at the “sacred desk” to lecture to his congregation about what Mormonism stands for, which he says is “way off base from the teachings of the Baptist church.” But, he says, “Romney is the better choice.” For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.