Battleground Counties: Prince William County, Virginia

Prince William County, Virginia was a county mentioned in the very first post that inspired the whole Battleground Counties series but I never had a chance to profile this enormously important county in one of the two key Battleground States this election. If one candidate wins both Virginia and Ohio, they almost certainly win the election and whoever wins Prince William County likely wins Virginia so a lot rides on this burgeoning exurb. Just further west of voter-rich Fairfax County, Prince William only two decades ago would have been considered rural, but between the dramatic expansion of federal workers in Northern Virginia and a solid technology sector in this region, Prince William County has gone from horse pastures to McMansions in short order.  This is an area where the obscure sequestration debate resonates loudly –a quarter of its residents commute over an hour to get to work, most all for federal jobs impacted by the cuts. The county’s election impact is undeniable. Between 2004 and 2008 both the population and voter turnout for the major party candidates increased dramatically, from 131, 047 to 161,056 a 23% increase.  To put this is perspective, George Bush won the County in 2004  by 6% with a total of 69,776 votes.  In 2008 John McCain garnered 67,621 votes (enough to beat John Kerry by 6k votes) but still lost by 16% (25.8k votes) to President Obama. This is a changing and increasingly valuable exurb. Local writers at drill down on their once sleepy but now hopping home county:

In June 2008, Democrat Barack Obama kicked off his general election campaign at the Nissan Pavilion in western Prince William County. Five months later, he closed his presidential campaign with an election-eve rally that drew about 85,000 people to the Prince William County Fairgrounds. This Friday, Obama returns to the area, holding a re-election rally in Manassas, where GOP nominee Mitt Romney campaigned Aug. 11 with his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. Prince William, a booming Northern Virginia exurb of 413,000 residents, is home to some of Virginia’s most prominent conservatives, including Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors. Yet Obama carried Prince William by 25,000 votes in 2008, becoming the first Democratic nominee to win the county — and the state — in 44 years. The political cross-currents that made that possible — affluence, diversity, cul-de-sacs sprouting where there were once country fields — make Virginia’s second-largest county a key battleground in this pivotal swing state. “If you win Fairfax County and Prince William you’re almost guaranteed to tilt the state,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-11th. As for Romney, “He’s got to take Prince William,” says Connolly’s predecessor, Republican Thomas M. Davis III. “He doesn’t need it by a lot, but he needs to carry Prince William.”

Democrat beachhead in Northern Virginia

For decades, Prince William and Loudoun County, its neighbor to the north, were outside-the-Beltway behemoths that gave Republicans something of a firewall in presidential elections. In 2008, that firewall collapsed. Obama swept all of Northern Virginia, winning Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax, Manassas and Manassas Park. Collectively, Obama won Northern Virginia by 234,079 votes. In the rest of the state combined, he edged Republican John McCain by 448 votes. If Republicans hope to retake Virginia at the presidential level, they will have to chip away at Obama’s dominance in the state’s population centers such as Loudoun and Prince William, the fastest-growing localities in the state.

GOP opportunity

If Republicans hope to retake Virginia at the presidential level, they will have to chip away at Obama’s dominance in the state’s population centers such as Loudoun and Prince William, the fastest-growing localities in the state. Virginia Republicans say this election comes in a different climate from 2008. They say they have enthusiasm on their side and much better statewide organization than four years ago. Marshall said that “the present economic difficulties may turn some Democrats into Republican voters or more likely presidential no-shows and congressional-voters only, because whichever party is in power usually is blamed for the state of the economy.” Davis said Republicans “will do considerably better in what we call ROVA — the rest of Virginia,” than in 2008, but “they need to cut those margins down in NOVA. You certainly can’t make up 230,000 votes in the rest of the state.” That is a challenge because Northern Virginia “is culturally to the left of the Republican Party and we’re losing it on culture,” Davis said.

Prince William Weather Vane

The county backed Democrats Timothy M. Kaine for governor in 2005, Jim Webb for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and Mark R. Warner for the U.S. Senate in 2008. It then backed Republicans Bob McDonnell [Governor], Bill Bolling [Lt. Governor] and Cuccinelli [Attorney General] as they swept Virginia’s statewide offices in 2009. Republicans dominate local elective offices, and the county could provide two of the GOP’s three nominees for statewide office next year. Cuccinelli, who lives in western Prince William, is running for governor. Stewart, the supervisors chairman, and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, are two of the five GOP candidates for lieutenant governor.

Multiple Battle Stations

A presidential election is different from any other statewide race in Virginia because voter turnout spikes from about 50 percent to above 70 percent. Ground troops for the Obama and Romney campaigns are waging a fierce fight across the county, knocking on doors, holding phone banks and conducting voter-registration drives. The Obama campaign has two offices in Prince William — in Woodbridge, on the county’s eastern end, and in Manassas, near the county’s western end. The Romney campaign is operating out of offices in western Prince William and in Manassas, as well as the county’s GOP headquarters in Woodbridge.

The changing Prince William

By the 2010 census, it was a “minority majority” county in which only 48.7 percent of residents were non-Hispanic whites. Blacks, who had accounted for 11.6 percent of Prince William’s population 20 years before, made up 21 percent in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s Hispanic population grew from 9.7 percent to 20.3 percent, and its Asian population rose from 3.9 percent to 8.1 percent. In 2007, amid the rapid growth in Prince William’s Hispanic population, a crackdown on illegal immigration — championed by Stewart — drew national notice. The policy required police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they had “probable cause” to believe was in the country illegally. The policy passed in 2008, but the county board significantly altered it eight weeks later because of concerns that it would open the county to racial-profiling allegations. In 2008, Obama received 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in the state, which made up 5 percent of the state’s electorate, according to exit polls.

All hands on deck

On Sept. 8, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, headlined a roundtable for business and community leaders in Woodbridge. On Friday, Craig Romney, one of the candidate’s five sons, who speaks Spanish and did missionary work in Chile, stopped by the GOP’s office in western Prince William. He also joined TV personality Rachel Campos-Duffy and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez to hold a “Juntos con Romney” (Together With Romney) discussion in Loudoun with Hispanic community and business leaders from Northern Virginia. This weekend, both campaigns will register voters at Washington-area Koreans’ KORUS Festival in Centreville. Christina M. “Tina” Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, will be there for the Obama campaign, Cuccinelli on behalf of the Romney campaign.

Economy hits everyone

Prince William is one of the nation’s most affluent counties, but it was not immune from the economic downturn. In 2010, according to county figures, Prince William’s median household income was $92,655, which ranked fifth in Virginia and ninth among the largest counties in the U.S. But it was hit particularly hard by the wave of foreclosures during the worst of the economic crisis. Foreclosures in Prince William peaked in April 2008, when the county saw 1,211 auction sales and repossessions, according to the Virginia Association of Realtors. The pace of foreclosures has steadily declined since, to 243 in July, the latest data available. In July, Prince William’s jobless rate was 4.9 percent, compared with the overall state rate of 5.9 percent and the national rate of 8.3 percent.

Sequestration finds a home

But the federal jobs and related contracting positions that cushion Prince William against unemployment leave the county particularly vulnerable to the automatic defense cuts that would kick in under the process known as sequestration. Virginia could lose 207,571 jobs from federal spending cuts — 136,191 resulting from Department of Defense cuts and 71,380 from non-Defense Department cuts — starting next year if Congress fails to resolve the budget crisis, according to an analysis released in July. Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University who conducted the study with Chmura Economics and Analytics, a research firm in Richmond, says the cuts would hit Northern Virginia particularly hard because of its concentration of contracting jobs. Davis says the legislation that set up the possibility of automatic defense cuts could give Romney an opening in Northern Virginia.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Loudoun County Local on September 20, 2012 at 11:41 am

    […] Battleground Counties: Prince William County, Virginia … […]

  2. […] #7: Prince William County […]

  3. […] a number of posts I have pointed out how difficult it is for Mitt Romney to crack the Northern Virginia stranglehold […]

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