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Role reversals in Virginias reflect national shift

As the gap grows between places that are prospering and those that are not, Democrats are strengthening their hold in major metropolitan areas, particularly in places faring well in the technology-driven economy.
Image: Bristow, Va., rally
More than 10,000 people turned out for an Obama rally June 5 in northern Virginia.Olivier Douliery / Abaca file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When Sen. Barack Obama chose the Nissan Pavilion in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia to kick off his general-election campaign, one of the 10,000 supporters there was David Bruzas, who recently moved to the fastest-growing part of a state that is moving rapidly away from its Republican past.

"Being in this area has made me a lot more politically in tune with what's going on," said Bruzas, 27, a systems engineer from Illinois who moved to Fairfax County to work for Cisco Systems in 2005. "And I identify with Obama."

Only a few hours west on Route 50, in the old railroad town of Grafton, W.Va., the political world is spinning in the other direction. West Virginia, traditionally Democratic, was one of only six states that voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and one of 10 that voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988, but in recent years it went twice for George W. Bush, and Obama's prospects there are poor.

Looking down an empty Main Street the other day, highway worker David Whitehair, 55, said he was a loyal Democrat until 2000. "Bush was a good man and had good morals. I felt he was the better man," he said. This year? "I don't care for Obama."

The emerging political reversals of the two Virginias are part of a national shift that has been underway for at least a decade and is expected to reveal itself more clearly than ever this November. As the gap grows between places that are prospering and those that are not, Democrats are strengthening their hold in major metropolitan areas, particularly in places faring well in the technology-driven economy.

In 1976, Republican Gerald R. Ford won 10 of the 12 states with the highest per-capita income but lost the election; in 2004, John F. Kerry did the same for the Democrats. The two states won by Republicans? Virginia and Colorado, Obama's top targets, though victory is far from assured, given that vast parts of both remain strongly conservative.

Republicans, meanwhile, are consolidating their hold in rural areas and small cities, while making inroads in struggling Appalachian and Rust Belt regions that were a core of the Democratic base.

The trend generally bodes well for Democrats. Major metro areas are growing faster than the country as a whole, the party's strength with young voters promises a lasting edge, and well-off, highly educated urban voters are valuable campaign contributors in the Internet age. The weak economy and soaring gas prices could accelerate the shift if more Americans move closer to urban hubs in search of good jobs and shorter commutes.

But the Democrats' ascendance in prosperous areas leaves them with weak spots in key swing states such as Ohio. And it presents questions about their identity: The party that fought for the little guy against the party of the wealthy has, while still representing racial minorities, increasingly become defined by the metropolitan middle and upper-middle class.

Theorists have spent years debating what is behind the shift, but they generally agree that the parties are in a cycle in which each plays to its emerging strengths. By pressing issues such as gun rights and same-sex marriage, Republicans tightened their grip on the South and snared such states as West Virginia, but lost many business-minded voters and alienated areas such as Fairfax County, where one in seven Virginians live.

In elevating coastal liberals including Kerry (Mass.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as party standard-bearers, Democrats advanced in their strongholds -- Kerry did better in big cities in 2004 than Al Gore had in 2000, while faring worse overall.

The gap first became apparent in the red-blue map of the 2000 election, but this year's version could represent an even more radical realization of the divide. The Bush presidency has widened the gap, as many suburban voters deserted the Republican Party in the 2006 congressional elections. And it would be hard to find a pair better positioned to clarify the split, and show which segment holds sway in 2008, than Obama and Sen. John McCain.

Obama, 46, offers himself as someone who can transcend the red-blue divides of the past decade. But the biracial senator from Illinois epitomizes the new Democratic coalition, with his years living abroad and in big cities, his intellectualism and his urbane flair, and his campaign's lofty rhetoric and Internet savvy.

McCain, 71, lacks Bush's ties with evangelical Christians, yet the Republican from Arizona still embodies a more traditional America, with his wartime heroism, his mantra of service over individualism and his admittedly limited technological literacy.

Obama recently greeted his wife with a fist-bump; McCain said he was vetting possible running mates with "a Google."

'A realignment'
The transformation goes beyond politics. As the distance between the rich and the poor grows, so too does the gap between regions. In places such as Northern Virginia, success has fed on itself, as firms seek educated workers and proximity to rivals and clients, and people with college degrees flock to the opportunities. Such areas are also seeing a surge in foreign-born residents, who favor Democrats.

In places such as West Virginia, manufacturing and mining have been decimated by automation and foreign competition, and hopes for reinvention are undermined by the stream of young people leaving. "There is a realignment going on here. It's a long-term shift that has to do with the economic decline in some areas in the modern economy," said Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton University.

At the same time, like-minded voters are clustering together, making the split shaped more by culture and region than by class. The most Republican area of West Virginia is its eastern panhandle, where Washington area workers have fled Northern Virginia's high costs of living and more liberal bent.

"Democratic areas are sopping up people with BA degrees; Republican areas are sopping up white people without degrees. Church membership is declining in Democratic areas and increasing in red counties," said Bill Bishop, author of "The Big Sort." "There are all these things telling people they should be around people like themselves. And every four years, this has political consequences."

Overall, the most wealthy are still more likely to vote for GOP candidates, particularly in red states, where it is the rich, not the working class, who are most reliably Republican. The split is more evident in education and vocation, with professionals and voters with post-graduate degrees trending Democratic.

But in general, where economic dynamism is concentrated, Democrats are gaining. Bishop found that Gore and Kerry did much better in the 21 metro areas that produced the most new patents than in less tech-oriented cities. Virginia Tech demographer Robert E. Lang found that Kerry did better in the 20 metro areas most linked to the global economy -- based on business networks, shipping and airport activity -- than in metro areas as a whole.

Affluent suburbs that were once solidly Republican have edged toward a split or turned Democratic, threatening to put big states out of the GOP's reach for good: Bergen County, N.J., and New York's Long Island; the "collar" counties outside Chicago; Montgomery and Bucks counties outside Philadelphia.

Now, the trend is hitting in swing states and ones Republicans long counted as safe, in places such as southern New Hampshire, North Carolina's Research Triangle, suburban St. Louis County and even Colorado's Douglas County, a booming Denver suburb that is still Republican but seeing more Democrats moving in from Southern California.

Meanwhile, Republicans have made gains in the Democrats' New Deal base -- places such as West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. In the 2004 election, Bush won outlying exurbs with the fastest rate of population growth, though those areas have gained fewer voters than the closer-in suburbs where Democrats dominate.

"The trend is clear: The Democrats have a firewall in the metropolis, and it is increasingly moving outside the beltways," Lang said.

West Virginia's red trend
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) argued that Democrats should nominate her because she could win states such as West Virginia, but in settling on Obama, the party has taken a bet on its future. Obama barely campaigned in West Virginia, lost it by 41 points and will probably spend little time campaigning there.

Leading Democrats in West Virginia lament Obama's lack of effort, contrasting it with the campaign of John F. Kennedy, who, like Obama, faced hurdles as a minority in West Virginia -- in Kennedy's case, as a Roman Catholic -- but set out to win the 1960 primary there.

But the West Virginia of 1960 was different politically, with gratitude for the New Deal still running high. The state has made strides, but it remains among the poorest and oldest.

Democrats still control state government and all but one of the state's seats in Congress, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. But the state voted for Bush by six points over Gore and 13 points over Kerry. Its pro-Democrat unions have declined.

Since 2000, an argument has raged over why voters in West Virginia and elsewhere have voted against Democrats who offered health-care and tax plans that favor them. In his 2004 book "What's the Matter with Kansas?", Thomas Frank argued that Republicans have used social issues such as abortion to win poorer voters.

Bartels, at Princeton, disputed Frank with data showing that higher-income voters are more likely than poorer ones to cite issues such as abortion. Outside the South, low-income whites have stayed loyal to Democrats, he said.

Political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz countered by showing that working-class white voters -- whom they define more broadly than Bartels -- have been deserting the Democrats for years. This has hurt the party, they say, but will matter less as that group dwindles as a share of the electorate.

In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the only Republican in the state's congressional delegation, said it was simple: As national Democrats focused on a cosmopolitan constituency, her party made clear that it understood West Virginia's culture.

The Democrats "do appeal more to an upper-middle-class, higher-educated, faster-moving kind of voter," she said. "Voters here are still waking up in the morning saying, 'I want to make sure my kids get fed and that someone's not trading away my constitutional rights.' "

Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) gives a similar diagnosis, saying that he has to convince West Virginians that national Democrats would not be able to take away gun rights, even if they wanted to -- and that he has to persuade his party to give his state another look. "I've encouraged Barack. I say, 'Please come back to West Virginia and sit down and talk to people so they'll get to know you.' "

In Grafton, residents agree that the national Democratic Party now represents a part of the country that has moved beyond them. The town of 5,500 was once a vibrant place with a strong link to cities: The railroad passed through after crossing the Cumberland Gap, with one line continuing to Columbus and one to Cincinnati. At its peak, it employed 3,000 to maintain engines. A whole economy, including a seven-story hotel, sprang up around it.

But the passenger trains stopped running in the 1970s, and the diesel engines that still rumble through, hauling coal, are maintained elsewhere. The few companies left include a sheet-glass firm and a maker of the adhesive on no-lick stamps. The Beaux Arts train station is a museum, and the hotel looms empty.

Keith Thompson's father was a cabbie at the station, and his father-in-law was a train inspector, but Thompson, 52, works in Morgantown, 25 miles away, delivering uniforms to coal miners and car mechanics. He has voted Republican for years, fed up with West Virginia Democrats who he thinks have crippled the state with taxes, regulation and welfare, and national Democrats who he thinks want to take away his semiautomatic rifles.

For Whitehair, the highway worker, the turning point in 2000 was the Democrats' fight to save the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. He will vote Republican again because McCain was a Vietnam POW. Also, he "heard Obama was a Muslim" -- a false rumor.

Whitehair said Grafton has suffered in the past decade, but he put much of the blame on Democratic "career politicians" representing the state rather than on President Bush. "You'd have to find fault with all of them," he said.

Virginia becoming blue
In Northern Virginia, it is the Republicans looking for answers. The region has boomed, adding 300,000 people in the first half of the decade. With Kerry having claimed Fairfax County in 2004, Obama will push outward, trying to duplicate the success of Democratic Sen. James Webb and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in Loudoun and Prince William counties, where growth is tinged with anxiety over the housing crash and gas prices.

Some local Republicans play down the shift. State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II says the region has become more Democratic because many residents work for the government or government contractors, and have a "pro-bigger-government leaning." State Del. David B. Albo argues it is not the highly educated who have turned Fairfax blue. "My bet is that it's those who are on food stamps and government services who tend to be more Democratic," he said.

Vince Callahan isn't so sure. "It's a permanent trend," said Callahan, who gave up the last General Assembly seat held by a Republican inside the Beltway last year. "You have a very sophisticated electorate here that doesn't like the narrow focus of the Republican Party."

Among those the GOP has lost is Margaret Volpe, 64, a Navy employee who moved to Centreville from Indiana with her husband 20 years ago. After voting mostly Republican for years, she switched to Kerry in 2004. She thought the war in Iraq "was not something we needed to do." And health care mattered more to her after she was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago, got involved in advocacy work and became "very aware of people who don't have coverage."

Then there's Bruzas, the systems engineer, who waited for the Obama rally with a copy of Newsweek. A graduate of Purdue University, he left Indiana as fast as he could, did a stint in Raleigh, N.C., then came to Fairfax.

He grew up in a Republican home and used to be apathetic about politics. But he was bothered to find on a recent trip to Europe that people there had a darker view of his country than when he visited in the late 1990s. He didn't like the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy. He started reading political blogs. And he decided to come to the rally, which was easy to do because his job is "flexible, so I was working at home and cut out early."

So flexible, he may move soon, to try another place. It wouldn't be hard, since Cisco has branches everywhere. Or rather: in every major metro area, where, chances are, Bruzas's politics would be right at home.