President Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph in Virginia was widely attributed to a well-orchestrated campaign that mobilized large swaths of voters, even in reliably conservative areas. Four years later, it’s growing support among women that’s giving the president momentum in the Commonwealth — and according to some observers, he can thank the Republican party’s revival of the culture wars for powering his re-election bid there.
The president’s 2008 victory in Virginia followed the same electoral blueprint as the 2005 gubernatorial win by current United States Senate candidate Tim Kaine (D-VA). Obama, like Kaine, won both Loudoun and Prince William counties — two erstwhile GOP strongholds in northern Virginia with large concentrations of wealth — due to unusually high turnout by exurban and minority voters in the suburban Washington, D.C. communities.
Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s success in Loudoun and Prince William in the 2009 gubernatorial race has some wondering whether Obama will enjoy the same level of support in the northern Virginia suburbs — not to mention college towns such as Charlottesville — that propelled him to a six-point win over Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). But in the wake of the GOP’s recent reinstatement of the culture wars, the president may now have the luxury of an alternative gateway to Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.
Count former Congressman Tom Davis (R) among the Virginia Republicans concerned about the party’s renewed emphasis on social issues. Davis, who represented Virginia’s 11th Congressional District from 1995-2008, fears that recent debates over abortion in the Virginia state legislature along with the contraception fight in Washington have damaged the GOP’s brand with women voters, particularly those who live in the suburban areas targeted by both parties.
“When we stick to social issues, it undercuts our message with women,” Davis told TPM. “These are issues that are not likely to appeal culturally in northern Virginia.”
Democrats believe that the GOP’s tactics have handed Obama a firewall, which might allow the president to weather a potential dip in enthusiasm among minority and exurban voters. One Democratic strategist in Virginia set an extremely lofty threshold for the eventual Republican presidential nominee. “If Republicans can’t hold at least 45 percent of suburban women, they’ll just get killed,” the strategist told TPM.
That might be a daunting task for a party embroiled in what Democrats are labeling a “war on women.” Making matters worse for the GOP: Obama’s increasingly strong standing in Virginia since the beginning of the new year. A Quinnipiac survey released this week shows the president leading all potential GOP challengers in head-to-head match-ups, including a 50 percent to 42 percent advantage over Mitt Romney. An NBC/Marist poll released earlier this month had Obama holding a 17-point lead over Romney in the Commonwealth. Those encouraging poll numbers represent a recent development for Obama, who claimed his first lead over Romney in Quinnipiac’s polling of Virginia only a month ago.
What’s happened since the calendar flipped to 2012? Republicans in the Virginia state house introduced legislation requiring women to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion, as well as a “fetal personhood” bill that would have granted legal rights to a human fertilized egg. House Republicans on Capitol Hill convened a hearing on the Obama administration’s birth control mandate with testimony from virtually all male witnesses. Georgetown law student and activist Sandra Fluke, who was denied an opportunity to testify at the Congressional hearing, was derisively branded as a “slut” by talk radio host and conservative patriarch Rush Limbaugh.
Obama’s surge in the aforementioned polls dovetails quite seamlessly with those events. The chart below illustrates the respective favorability ratings of Obama and Romney in Virginia from October of 2011 until this month, illustrating that the likely GOP nominee’s dip has coincided with the polarizing battles waged by social conservatives in Richmond and Washington.
To be fair, Romney has not been in the vanguard of those fights, although he has occasionally ascribed the contraception mandate to Obama’s alleged hostility toward religious institutions. There are also other factors at work — namely the protracted nomination contest that has bruised Romney politically — but it’s not a leap to suggest that the Republican party as a whole has been conflated with the anti-abortion and anti-contraception push by some on the right.
Perhaps more telling, and certainly more disconcerting for Romney, is his precipitous drop in support from women in Virginia. According to Quinnipiac’s December survey, Romney topped Obama among Virginia’s women voters, 45 percent to 43 percent; however, the results reversed in Quinnipiac’s latest release, with women preferring Obama over Romney, 52 percent to 39 percent. Moreover, the TPM Poll Average of Virginia captures Obama’s widening lead over Romney among all voters since the beginning of January.
The two parties disagree over the extent to which these social issues will influence the result of the general election. Davis, who endorsed Romney earlier this month, believes that while the former Massachusetts governor has been hamstrung by an inability to excite voters (“Romney gives a fireside chat and the fire goes out,” he quipped), the election will ultimately be a referendum on Obama’s first term.
“After he wraps it up and makes it through the convention, Romney is going to be fine,” Davis said. “At the end of the day it’s all about Obama.”
Whit Ayres, president of the Republican polling firm North Star Opinion Research, also believes that any damage suffered by the GOP during the last two months is ephemeral. “If Romney manages to get the nomination, all of those side issues that have nothing to do with the economy, spending and debt will go by the wayside,” Ayres told TPM. “The fundamentals of this race still make for an uphill challenge for the president in Virginia.”
Democrats, not surprisingly, see it differently. Carolyn Fiddler, a Virginia native and communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, believes socially conservative Republicans have equipped Obama with a potent wedge issue.
“Republicans have helped Obama a great deal in Virginia,” Fiddler told TPM. “This emphasis on abortion and contraception, which was settled decades ago, is seen as confusing and frustrating to women.”
What seems clear is that Virginia no longer provides as much fertile ground for social conservatives as it did in 2006, when the Commonwealth passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Another poll released by Quinnipiac this week revealed a drop in approval of the state legislature, with a strong majority opposed to the abortion measures considered by Virginia lawmakers. Fiddler says voters in the state have begun to place a premium on practical governing in recent years.
“Virginians have gotten accustomed to really pragmatic policymaking over the last decade,” Fiddler said. “They really haven’t taken as kindly to Tea Party extremism as some on the right might still think.”
Photo from Hintau Aliaksei / Shutterstock
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.