Two Communities and Two Different Views of 2012 in Virginia

Printer-friendly versionSend to friend

There are few community types in Patchwork Nation as different as the Evangelical Epicenters and the Campus and Careers counties. Culturally and economically the live in different worlds and that manifests itself in politics.

In 2008, the collegiate Campus and Careers counties went for Barack Obama by an 18-point margin – 58% - 40%. Only the big city Industrial Metropolis counties were more firmly behind President Obama.

The Evangelical Epicenters were one of the few county types that actually bucked the national trend toward the Democrats four years ago. Those counties actually gave the GOP a greater margin of victory in 2008 than they did in 2004 – a 33-percentage point win for McCain-Palin, compared to a 31-percentage point win for Bush-Cheney in 2004.

If 2012 is to be “base election” as many are theorizing, what do these county types tell us about the vote? Patchwork Nation has visited a few communities in the battleground state of Virginia in the last few days and 2012 feels a lot different than 2008, for both types.

A Vote Against

It would be wrong to say that the Evangelical Epicenter counties are not enthusiastic about the election. The latest poll numbers indicate the vote for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could exceed the margins the GOP got in those counties in 2008.

And yet, talking with voters this week in Broadway, Virginia a small town in the Evangelical Epicenter of Rockingham County, the story that emerges is not one of enthusiasm for Romney, but dislike of Obama particularly on social issues.

Some of the people we talked to openly indicated that Romney’s Mormon background was a turn-off for them. Those conversations mirrored talks we had four years ago in Nixa, Missouri, a small town in the Evangelical Epicenter of Christian County.

Other expressed skepticism that Mr. Romney – or anyone for that matter – could fix the economic problems that have troubled their rural community for years. Problems like incomes that perpetually sit below the state and national averages.

In 2008, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin brought some excitement to the Republican ticket for evangelicals when she was named vice presidential nominee. Indeed, in Nixa evangelical voters were not enthused about the race in 2008 until she was selected.

The 2012 GOP ticket does not have a similar element.

What is does have, in Broadway, is empty storefronts on the town’s old-school Main Street. Local business owners say they have struggled in recent months and those struggles may give a boost to Romney who many voters there describe as “lesser of two evils.”

Hard to Recreate 08

About an hour-and-half away in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, there is little question of who will win the vote – in 2008 Obama captured some 78% of the vote in the city and 58% of the vote in the surrounding county. The question is whether those kinds of margins are possible again in two weeks.

The college vote, a key for Obama in 2008, can be hard to motivate, particularly without the feel the 2008 campaign had of a political movement. That was clearly an issue in 2010 where college students barely turned out to vote in the midterm elections – only about 20% of those 18 - 29-year-olds voted.

One volunteer working at an Obama office near the U. Va. campus said her friends tuned into the debates and seemed ready to vote, but were less interested in canvassing or making phone calls for the president. That robs the Obama team of an important element they had in 2008, a group of young, engaged foot soldiers.

Still, if Charlottesville is not especially fired up (at least not to 2008 levels), it is also not particularly disgruntled, at least economically. Buildings, many connected to the university, are still going up. And the town’s Main Street, which is an open-air pedestrian mall, is full of people eating, drinking and shopping. In surrounding Albemarle County, the unemployment rate is an obscenely low 4.6%. That is actually slightly lower than when Obama took office in January of 2009.

And those low unemployment rates are the norm in Campus and Career counties – nationally their figure for August was 7.2 percent.

Duty, Not Enthusiasm

Throughout the 2012 campaign it’s been clear that 2008 was not a good point of comparison, but visiting these communities in one of 2012’s crucial swing states underscores that point. Broadway and Charlottesville are very different places, but one thing they seem to share is a lack of excitement over the options on the ballot.

Rather, in these communities, it seems that 2012 is more of a referendum on the man in the White House. In both places voters seem ready to vote and render their verdict on his four years in office, but whether they are defending him or voting for his opponent, no one gives the impression that they will be casting their ballots with a lot of joy.