Barring an incredible upset this November, Virginia’s Republican Party seems assured of holding on to control of the state’s House of Delegates, where GOP legislators outnumber Democrats two to one. But their massive majority may be a sunset glow.
Even if the party manages to maintain control of both of the state’s legislative chambers amid low voter turnout this fall, the latest statistics from the state’s Department of Elections portray a party that’s on a fast track to irrelevance. Virginia’s GOP is facing demographic headwinds that could push the swing state both parties badly want–but only Republicans truly need to win–into the blue column in 2016 and beyond.
The state’s registration tallies over the last seven months reveal a Democratic boom that Republicans have been unable to match. Since the 2014 midterm elections last November, 77,176 people have registered to vote in Virginia, according to the state’s Department of Elections.
And while Virginia doesn’t include party registration in the process, more than 30 percent of the potential new voters hail from strongly Democratic areas of the state where President Obama triumphed in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote or more. In contrast, only 11 percent of new voters were from counties and independent cities that gave Mitt Romney margins of that magnitude.
Put another way: 2014 was the most disastrous election for Virginia Democrats in recent memory, but Democratic Senator Mark Warner still managed to prevail amid a lackluster Democratic voter turnout and a jazzed-up Republican one. And in the seven months since Democrats proved they could win statewide under the worst of conditions, they’ve further strengthened their hold on the state as Democratic strongholds nearly tripled the voter registration gains of their Republican counterparts.
Other statistics in the registration numbers are even more heartening for Democrats. In all of the registration reports since November, voters younger than 25 have made up strong pluralities of the pools of new registrants — and in May they even made up an outright majority at 53 percent. Virginia was a rare state where President Obama actually expanded his margin among the youngest voters in 2012, hitting 61 percent according to exit polls. Democrats can’t be unhappy to see a more youthful electorate shaping up before their eyes.
Interestingly, if you add up the results of every county and city where one party is dominant save one, the registration difference is only a few hundred out of tens of thousands of new voters. But Virginia’s largest county by population, Fairfax County, scrambles to make the end result a Democratic rout.
Since November, Fairfax County has always added more than 1,000 new registrants to Virginia’s voter pool, and sometimes more than 3,000, at a time when just one other county (the moderately Democrat-leaning Loudoun County) managed to break the 1,000 mark even once. It’s a registration juggernaut, and having backed Obama with 60 percent of its vote in 2012 it tips the scale decisively for the Democrats.
That isn’t to say Democrats will win these new voters overwhelmingly, or even match Obama’s 60 percent level of support in future elections. But they don’t have to.
“When we have our registration drives, we register anybody, both Democrats and Republicans. We don’t turn anyone away,” Sue Langley, chair of Fairfax County’s Democratic Party, told me cheerfully. Democratic strategists on the ground aren’t afraid of registering occasional Republicans as long as they’re helping to ensure that Fairfax, which is home to one in eight Virginians, continues to turn out tens of thousands more voters with each election. Light a fire under voter turnout, and the electoral windfall for Virginia Democrats will take care of itself.
Democrats are supremely confident in their position in Fairfax thanks to the incredible rate at which the county is diversifying. “I’ll give you a simple example,” Chairwoman Langley said. “Stop by a public high school, and guess how many languages the sign for students to wash their hands in the restroom will be translated in. Two dozen!”
“Way back before my time, in the ’70s and late ’80s, Fairfax was a very red county,” Mrs. Langley reminisced. “But starting in the late ’90s and certainly from 2000 onward, a lot of volunteers have worked very hard to transform Fairfax, and 2004 was the first time it voted for a Democratic presidential nominee.”
The county hasn’t looked back since its 2004 inflection point, giving President Obama a 109,000 vote margin in 2012. Fairfax was also the county that officially put Mark Warner over the top in his razor-thin reelection race, giving him a roughly 54,000 vote edge from the tally there despite miserable Democratic turnout.
Virginia’s most populous county will continue to determine outcomes in statewide elections because it’s growing at a time when traditional Republican strongholds are on the decline throughout the state.
Virginia’s southwestern corner is the most Republican area of the state, with every county and independent city save the small college town of Radford supporting Mitt Romney in 2012, often by a 30-58 point margin. But its population is also far more elderly than Virginia’s as a whole, with nearly a quarter of its residents aged 60 or older. By far the poorest of Virginia’s seven geographic regions, it’s suffered from stunted economic growth that’s caused its population to languish.
The Southwest saw population growth of just 0.1 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group. By contrast, Northern Virginia saw growth of 5.9 percent during that period.
Shonel Sen, a demographics researcher at the University of Virginia, pointed to outmigration as a major cause of the southwest’s stagnant population growth.
“Employment opportunities are a major factor,” she told me, noting that many younger Virginians from the area migrate to different parts of the state—or leave it altogether—in search of job opportunities that are scarce in Virginia’s Appalachian corner.
Her team of researchers have forecasted Northern Virginia to grow its share of the state’s population and electoral clout in the decades to come, a prediction that is being borne out by 2015’s registration numbers so far.
Southside, another Republican-leaning area that is composed of 22 cities and counties near the North Carolina border, actually lost population by 0.3 percent in the three years after 2010. Like the Southwest, it’s significantly older and economically poorer than Virginia as a whole.
The natural consequence of population growth is increased political sway. Almost without exception, Democratic regions in the state are expanding their electoral influence while GOP-leaning ones contract. Meanwhile, blue-leaning states continue to be the main sources of new blood in Virginia, with California, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania contributing the most newcomers to the Old Dominion.
Is it possible that most of these migrants are conservatives fleeing what they perceive to be over-regulated states? Certainly—and Republicans should fervently hope that’s the case. But the list of phenomena that Republicans have to hope isn’t as bad for their party as appears at first glance is growling longer. They have to hope that legions of new voters streaming in from heavily Democratic states are actually conservative, or at least genuine swing voters. They have to hope that the thousands of young Virginians registering each month are bucking a recent trend and becoming less loyal to the Democratic Party, rather than more as recent history would suggest.
Finally, they have to hope that they can make enough gains across the age groups to compensate for their most faithful age block, voters 65 and older, shrinking as a percentage of the electorate due to generational replacement (yes, that’s a euphemism). For a party that’s already playing catch-up after President Obama’s 150,000-vote victory in 2012, the GOP’s hope of having a hope in future Virginia elections is a very bad place to be in.
But Democrats shouldn’t assume that these gains are enough to let them glide to victory in 2016. Instead they should be actively harnessing the demographic winds at their backs, and that begins and ends with voter engagement.
Maintaining their 2012 level of support among the states minority population will be crucial for Democrats in what will be the first modern presidential election where they can hope to win in Virginia without a black presidential nominee on the ballot. To that end, Democratic presidential candidates should consider lending their names and their resources to the growing “90 for 90” movement in Virginia that aims to register “a quarter million for the Old Dominion” in honor of the 90th birthday of civil rights icon Dr. Ferguson Reid.
In many ways the challenges Virginia’s GOP faces today are just a preview of what may be in store for the party nationally. In both America at large and Virginia in particular, the GOP has alienated some of the fastest-growing slices of the electorate while becoming dangerously reliant on older voters, even as Democrats run up the score with the electorate of tomorrow. One day, that course will lead to irrelevance. A concerted registration effort in the Old Dominion this year could ensure the GOP’s electoral nightmare sets in all the sooner.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.