One cousin of mine lives with her husband, two children, and chocolate Labrador Sedona in Arlington, Va., in an area that has been transformed from the rural pastures of a few decades ago to a booming suburb fueled by subway stations and hip condos. Another cousin lives with her husband, a police officer, and their three children in nearby Ashburn, where she runs a small business.
They live happily apolitical lives, aware of what’s happening in their communities but by no means consumed with the upcoming elections. Little do they know they are the most important voters in the country.
As a matter of convenience, it is a happy coincidence that Virginia is one of a handful of focal points of this year's presidential contest. The key swing regions, in the Northern Virginia suburbs, are but a short drive away from Washington, accessible to the thousands of party operatives who want to knock on doors for their favorite candidates, and to the media who covers them.
Add together a competitive race for the state’s 13 electoral votes, a neck-and-neck race for a U.S. Senate seat, a key bellwether House race, and the fact that the state’s polls close early on Election Night, and the more conspiratorially minded among us might begin to suspect that Commonwealth voters are colluding in an effort to win attention, and the tens of millions of dollars that comes along with it.
The early poll closing time — my cousins and their fellow Virginians have until 7 p.m. to cast ballots — will give observers a quick hint about the direction the rest of Nov. 6 and the early hours of Nov. 7 will take.
In pursuit of an early win, President Obama, Mitt Romney, and their allies have already poured more than $133 million into television advertisements in Virginia, more than in any state other than Ohio and Florida. Outside groups have spent an additional $24 million to try to influence the state’s open Senate contest, where Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen are fighting a neck-and-neck battle. Kaine’s campaign spent $13 million, while Allen dished out $8.6 million through Sept. 30, according to newly filed reports at the Federal Election Commission.
There’s good reason for all that spending: For Democrats, Virginia is a firewall, a state that can virtually guarantee Obama a second term and Democratic control of the Senate.
While, technically, Romney can get to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win without Virginia, no strategist believes he could realistically lose the Old Dominion and still win swing states like Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Virginia is a luxury for Obama; it is necessary, but not sufficient, for Romney’s hopes.
Polls show a razor-tight race. The two most recent reliable surveys show a margin-of-error contest in Virginia. A poll conducted Oct. 7-9 by Marist College for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal shows Romney leading by a single percentage point. A poll conducted Oct. 4-9 by Quinnipiac University for CBS News and The New York Times shows Obama ahead by 5 points, though it probably didn’t fully take into account Romney's bounce out of the first presidential debate.
Any polling in Virginia should be viewed with suspicion. After all, Virginia’s electorate demonstrated a larger change between 2006 and 2008 than any other state. In 2006, just 21 percent of Virginia voters were nonwhite. By 2008, 30 percent were nonwhite, according to exit polls, a reflection both of the rapidly changing nature of the state and of the success Obama’s campaign had at identifying and turning out low-propensity voters. If Obama can find and turn out those voters again, polls might be understating his performance. But if pollsters account for a higher minority turnout that doesn’t actually materialize, Romney may be the one getting short shrift.
Republicans have something else to be concerned with: former Rep. Virgil Goode. Goode, elected as a Democrat, an independent, and a Republican to represent his old Southside congressional district, is running for president as the Constitution Party’s nominee, and most pollsters believe he could take a few thousand votes that might otherwise go to Romney. That, in a tight race, could be the difference.
Polling is also suspect in the Kaine-Allen matchup. After more than a year in which polling showed a tied race, Kaine now has a small but significant lead. Allen hasn’t led a legitimate public poll since July, though a poll conducted for his campaign last week showed him leading. Kaine began to break away from Allen as nonwhite voters already predisposed to voting for Obama began siding with Kaine further down the ballot.
Oddly, what may be bad for Romney might be good for Allen. Those 10,000 or so voters who back Goode at the presidential level won’t have a Constitution Party Senate nominee for whom to vote. The only choices on the Senate ballot are Kaine and Allen, and conservatives who back Goode are likely to stick with Allen, Republicans believe.
Republicans’ path to a Senate majority most likely runs through Virginia. The GOP appears poised to win Democratic-held Nebraska, and the party has a good shot to snag both Montana and North Dakota. But Democrat Elizabeth Warren is polling well in Massachusetts, independent Angus King leads in Maine and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill looks increasingly likely to save herself in Missouri. If the tossup contests in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Indiana and Arizona don’t all break for Republicans, Virginia becomes critical in adding up to the 51 seats they would need to win outright control.
Beyond the Senate contest, the race for Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District looks likely to offer an early glimpse at the battle for the House of Representatives. Republican Rep. Scott Rigell faces Democrat Paul Hirschbiel, a wealthy venture capitalist who has proved an adept fundraiser in his first bid for public office.
If Democrats are to have any chance at winning the 25 seats they need to recapture the House, they will need seats like the 2nd, which Rigell wrested from a Democratic incumbent during the 2010 wave. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed early signs they were interested in investing on Hirschbiel’s behalf. This summer, they reserved $424,000 in advertising time in the district’s three markets. But Democrats canceled some of those reservations late last month, a sign that the party has declining hopes in Hirschbiel’s ability to beat Rigell.
If Rigell cruises to victory on Election Night, it will be an early hint that House Speaker John Boehner is likely to keep his gavel, as most observers expect. But were Hirschbiel to pull off the upset, it could be the beginning of a big night for House Democrats.
With early poll closing times and a plethora of hotly contested races from the presidency on down, Virginia is proving the canary in just about everyone’s coal mine. That’s why my cousins, and thousands of voters like them, are the focus of so much attention.