Highway 270: Virginia

This article is part of an ongoing biweekly series called “Highway 270,” which profiles heavily contested states in the 2012 election season. This week, I will examine the current political climate in Virginia, which has 13 electoral votes.

Since 1964, Virginia has been won by a Republican in every presidential election but one. The exception? The election of Barack Obama in 2008, where he took 53 percent of the state’s vote to John McCain’s 46.  As such, Obama’s campaign in the Old Dominion must be predicated on re-inspiring the voters that turned Virginia blue in the previous election. He has a very real chance of recapturing the state—which would strengthen Democrats’ chances there in future elections—but in order to do so, he must maintain a high approval rating amongst Virginian voters.

The most recent polling to come out of Virginia puts Obama’s approval rating at 46 percent—just shy of the “critical 50 percent" he needs to further secure his chances. His national support is a bit better—he currently polls at about 51 percent approval, and it is certainly possible that Virginians’ perception of the president will improve enough to push him over the halfway edge.

Of course, for Obama’s ratings to go up he must impress the people of Virginia. If he fails to do so, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying—Obama visited Virginia Beach just yesterday, where he is gunning for the support of southern Virginia’s substantial veteran population. His support has always been strong in the northern areas that border the District of Columbia—Democrats always do well in urban areas—but his attempts to reach out to other parts of Virginia will make or break his ability to win there.

Obama’s latest advertising soundbyte features what the president calls “economic patriotism,” and he used it often in his Virginia Beach speech, attempting to link military patriotism with his own economic plan. This soundbyte will play incessantly on Virginia television sets as the president tries to reinforce his promise of economic growth despite this country’s substantial deficit.

Romney is courting Virginia veterans by promising increased defense funding—which, he says, will provide, paraphrasing the ever-popular Ronald Reagan, “peace through strength.” Romney’s promises to the middle class may fall on increasingly skeptical ears ever since his now-infamous “47 percent gaffe,” where he was surreptitiously recorded making disparaging comments about the smaller-earning half of the United States.

Romney’s best chance to redefine himself after the 47 percent scandal (and Obama’s chance to reinforce the mistake in the minds of American voters) will come on October 3, when the two candidates face off in the first of three debates. This debate will focus on domestic policy, and naturally each candidate must tailor his argument to the ears of the toss-up state voter—particularly the Virginian.

For example, fears that Medicare will be turned into a voucher program are so prevalent in Virginia (as in Ohio, Florida, and most swing states) that Obama would be remiss not to equate a Romney win with potential loss of Medicare.

Romney will likely mention, as he did in Virginia yesterday, that his administration would increase large amounts of funding to defense, a large provider of contracting jobs in Virginia and an issue of importance to its aforementioned veteran population. But—Obama must reply—plans to increase that funding must be accompanied by plans to cut other programs—rerouting the conversation to the specific programs Romney plans (or is rumored to plan) to slash.

The 2012 GOP is fond of asking potential voters whether they’re better off than four years ago—hardly a new election tactic, but often an effective one, nonetheless. Romney will undoubtedly be spouting unemployment and slow GDP growth statistics on October 3, but this argument alone cannot win him Virginia, since the Old Dominion “weathered the overall economic downturn” better than many other parts of the country (Michigan, anyone?), according to CNN. Virginia voters aren’t disgruntled about the past—at least, not more so than the average American—they’re concerned about the future.

The ideal Romney-Obama argument over Virginia, then, must be rooted in promise, rather than retrospection—that is, Romney must convince Virginians that their economic stability is precarious and that four more years of the Obama administration will bring it to a halt. Obama, conversely, must convince them that Romney’s budget plan is too severe to work and would cause rampant unemployment and the end of popular programs. This is only a slightly nuanced version of the case each man must make to the nation as a whole—and rightly so, since the election as a whole will hinge on the decisions of a select few states, including—especially including—Virginia.