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Why Virginia matters

For political reporters -- including yours truly -- there's always the danger of overstating the significance of off-year and special elections, as well as their impact on future races.

After all, things can always change, particularly given how quickly the political news cycle moves. (Remember that debate over Syria? How about the government shutdown?)

That said, there's a reason why political observers should pay close attention to next week's gubernatorial contest in Virginia, and it has little to do with the two flawed candidates running (Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican Ken Cuccinelli) or the noteworthy politicos stumping for them (Bill Clinton, Rand Paul).

The reason why Virginia matters is that, politically, no other state better reflects the center of American politics than the Old Dominion.

In the last two presidential contests, the state's popular vote (Obama 53%-46% in '08; Obama 51%-47% in '12) exactly matched the national popular vote.

In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell's victorious gubernatorial campaign (seizing on the federal health-care and cap-and-trade legislation) served as the precursor to the kind of campaigns Republicans would run in the 2010 midterms.

And Virginia, demographically, looks like the country at large -- whites near 70% of the population, African Americans in the double digits, Latinos at 8%, Asian Americans at 6%. It also has a fairly even mixture of urban, suburban, and rural areas.

This isn't to say that if front-runner Terry McAuliffe wins next week, then Hillary Clinton (if she runs) is a shoo-in to win the state in 2016.

It also isn't to say that if Ken Cuccinelli pulls off the upset, then Republicans will have a leg up in the Old Dominion three years from now.

Rather, the point is that Virginia -- due to its demographics, its geography, and its crucial 13 electoral votes -- is perhaps the most important state to watch come 2016, 2020, and beyond.