If you need proof that President Obama's team will run a formidable ground game in Virginia, consider this: At the 2012 kickoff rally in Richmond, organizers say they signed up 1,500 new volunteers from the 8,000 people in the crowd. But in addition to obvious dangers like a struggling economy, Obama’s team will face a new threat -- a better-prepared Republican Party coming off three years of victories in the state.
That wasn’t the case in 2008, when John McCain’s campaign figured Virginia would follow its long-established trend of voting Republican in the presidential race. He ended up losing by 7 percentage points. “He assumed Virginia was a Republican state and by the time it wasn’t, they were losing everywhere,” said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.
Another problem for McCain was a lack of integration between the state party and the campaign. That won’t be the case this time. The party is being run by Executive Director Dave Rexrode, who is also serving as the Virginia director for the Republican National Committee, which is finishing a large-scale integration with Mitt Romney’s campaign. Rexrode also was deputy campaign manager for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and in that role he helped overhaul the party’s approach to voter contact and persuasion, get-out-the-vote operations, and volunteer recruitment.
“The approach that we took was that we were going to go into every community, every precinct, every neighborhood,” Rexrode said. “Regardless of its previous vote history, we were going into the bluest of blue precincts and as frequently as we did into the reddest of red precincts.”
It worked. Just a year after Obama's victory over McCain, McDonnell came back with a huge win, taking nearly 59 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Democrat Creigh Deeds. According to CBS News exit polls, 12 percent of people who said they had voted for Obama in the 2008 election picked McDonnell. Republicans also picked up the lieutenant governorship and the office of attorney general.
Rexrode brought that voter model with him to the state party when he became executive director in 2010, and it has proved fruitful. During the historic 2010 midterm elections, the GOP defeated three incumbent Democrats, bringing their U.S. House total to eight Republicans and three Democrats.
Then, last year, they secured the largest majority in the state House of Delegates in Virginia history -- 68 out of 100 members -- by defeating two Democratic incumbents and winning 13 of 14 open seats. They also gained control of the state Senate by winning three of five open seats and defeating another two Democratic incumbents.
“I think the Republicans will have a much more aggressive campaign in Virginia than in the past,” said Toni-Michelle Travis, a George Mason University political science professor and the author of the Almanac of Virginia Politics.
The Republicans' biggest challenge now is proving that the party can succeed in a presidential election in which the voting population will increase by about 20 percentage points. That electorate will be much younger and more diverse than the group of voters who show up for gubernatorial and state legislature elections.
“Their organization efforts succeed in low-turnout elections, but we have no idea if they can compete in a high-turnout election, which is what 2012 is bound to be,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
“You had significant Democratic advantages in 2008. Those advantages have disappeared partly, evaporated in part for the last four years, but I don’t think that Republicans will skyrocket or will be able to generate a disproportionately large GOP turnout compared to Democrats,” Sabato said.
The Democrats have better experience working at the national level, and Obama for America is working side by side with the Virginia Democrats and the campaign of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, who is facing former Sen. George Allen in one of the nation's most closely-watched Senate races.
For now, it’s a game of expectations. And those expectations seem worlds apart.
“I do not believe that they comprehend exactly what we’ve built over the last three years,” the GOP's Rexrode said. “If they choose to underestimate us, that’s their choice.”
“You’re not going to see the enthusiasm for the Republicans that you see for us,” countered Jennifer Kohl, the state communications director for the Obama campaign. “Virginians, particularly women, are coming out to volunteer in increasing numbers as they continue to see how high the stakes are in November.”
Added David Mills, the executive director of the Virginia Democrats, “I think we’re in a position to out-organize. I’m not worried about that at all. I don’t think that’s going to be our problem.”
But for all of their public bravado, Sabato suggested Democrats must realize the new challenge they face given their recent track record in the state.
“They’re downtrodden, and that’s what it takes,” he said. “After they’re beaten over the head with a two-by-four three years running, they get the message. They know it's going to be difficult. It will probably be harder.”
Much of the battle will take place in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia -- Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties -- which have been the site of an ongoing population boom that includes young, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters. Over the next 20 years, about 30 percent of Virginia’s expected population growth will be in those three counties, according to statistics from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
McDonnell won those three counties in his 2009 election, Rexrode said, even though all three had gone for Obama the year earlier. The campaign also targeted Asian-American voters -- who make up 17.5 percent of Fairfax County’s population and 14.7 percent of Loudoun County’s population -- by reaching out to business owners and getting them to put McDonnell posters in their windows.
With the help of the RNC, the party is working to reach out to Hispanic voters, a prominent Northern Virginia population. They hired a Hispanic outreach director to work in the state, a position that didn’t exist four years ago. The Democrats have their own Latino vote director in Virginia and a national structure called Latinos for Obama. They also are reaching out to the Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities in the state.
Even though Asian-Americans make up only 5.5 percent of the state’s population, any bloc of voters that moves the needle by even half a percentage point could make a difference in the election, said Holsworth, the political analyst.
It’s likely that the Democrats will be able to overtake the Republicans in terms of organization once again. Unhampered by a primary campaign, they already have 15 offices open statewide, with many more coming in the next few weeks. The Republicans have nine, and may replicate the 20 offices they set up during McDonnell’s campaign.
But the real challenge -- especially once Obama for America is no longer funneling vast resources to the state Democratic Party -- will be maintaining the strength that Democrats have manifested in presidential election years.
“In some ways at the state level, I think the Republican Party is better off than the Democratic Party,” Holsworth said.
GMU's Travis said it will take someone who knows Virginia Democrats well to come in and “reconstitute it after Obama.”