11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dems Battle With Yard Signs And Gain Ground In Southwest Virginia

For the first time in over 40 years, the state of Virginia may help put a Democrat in the White House. More important, the Democrat who will reside there if this happens will be the first African-American president in U.S. history. From some perspectives, the role that Virginia may play in deciding the next presidential election is surprising but also underscores the historical significance of this race and the well-established desire among voters to change the future direction of the country. Many analysts have focused on the potential of Northern Virginia to put the state in the Democratic column on election night. But, what about Southwest Virginia, a region that has been solidly Republican in past presidential elections for decades? I have lived in Southwest Virginia for 20 years now. My observations come from my vantage point as a resident of Floyd County, Virginia, a small, rural county in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia.

The Town of Floyd, the heart of Floyd County, is located just 10 minutes off the Blue Ridge Parkway, about one hour southwest of Roanoke, the closest city, and 45 minutes from Blacksburg, the home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. The county, which is home to some 16,000 people, is noted for its rich agricultural traditions, extended families and kinship ties that go back centuries. Many people still tend large home vegetable gardens and put up the produce for the coming year. Hunting and fishing are not simply for relaxation and recreation but provide venison and fish for the family table. The county also is home to an interesting population of organic farmers and homesteaders, artists, artisans, writers, storytellers and musicians. Some have local roots. Others have emigrated here from all over the country beginning in the late 60s and early 70s and continuing into the present. Most recently, a growing number of retirees have begun to settle in the county. The county's greatest attraction is its incredibly beautiful, well protected and healthy natural environment. A few years back, Mother Jones actually reported that Floyd County was the most environmentally healthy place to live in the United States.

The Town of Floyd is tiny. A single stoplight highlights its center at the intersection of Routes 8 and 221. The historic Floyd County Courthouse stands on one corner of that intersection right next to the Bank of Floyd, a small town, local bank just featured in a news story on National Public Radio last week. It seems that in this banking crisis more conservative, small, local banks are much more stable than their national competitors. The Farmer's Supply Hardware store sits just across the street on the opposite corner. The remaining two corners are occupied by local realitors. The town's two main streets are dotted with small shops featuring the work of local artisans and artists and antiques. One of the town's more prominent establishments is the Floyd Country Store. Here local musicians gather on Friday nights to play traditional music for an audience of community members and tourists as the Friday Night Jamboree. The Country Store also hosts musical groups from around the country. Floyd County is a part of the Southwest Virginia Crooked Road, which features traditional music. In the future, the county will also participate in Southwest Virginia's Round the Mountain Artisan Trail.

In the political arena, Floyd County historically has been a Republican stronghold. That allegiance, in many cases, has come from a distinct distrust of government, especially when it comes to issues of personal freedoms related to gun ownership, religion and private property rights. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections most folks around here were avid Bush supporters, with signs and bumper stickers indicating this support plastered everywhere. Former Republican Governor George Allen also was very popular here. He actually made a Sunday afternoon bus stop at a convenience store in Floyd during his failed campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Much of the support came from community members with strong beliefs in Christian doctrine and family values as well as a desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. This was not surprising in a region where evangelical and fundamentalist Christian beliefs are very strong and local churches are as much social as religious institutions. As our young children noticed when we first moved here from Pennsylvania, there is a tendency to look the other way when the legal separation between church and state is ignored, especially in the public schools. After all, we are in the Bible Belt and Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is only a couple of hours to our northeast.

Curiously though, Floyd County is also a part of the Ninth Congressional District where extremely popular Democratic Congressman Rick Boucher has been "Fightin' for the Ninth" for many years now. In recent gubernatorial elections, there also was noticeable support for Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Jim Webb received support here in his successful bid for U.S. Senate. However, when it comes to presidential elections, historically most folks around here have maintained a strong and clear-cut allegiance to their Republican roots. Those who supported Democratic candidates have found themselves out in the cold politically. From what I have observed so far though during this election cycle, Floyd County appears to be deviating from past trends.

I travel 45 minutes each way during the week through Floyd and nearby Montgomery and Pulaski Counties traveling to and from my job as a high school alternative education teacher. We began the new school year just as the Democratic National Convention was drawing to a close and the Republican Convention was revving up. Driving along the winding roads up and down the mountain as well as traveling Interstate 81 every day, I have been able to observe the growing political ground battle between Republicans and Democrats here; one that is noticeably different from previous years. The first political yard sign I noticed in town during this presidential election cycle did not support Republican John McCain but rather his rival Barack Obama. The original sign has been replaced by an even larger Obama 08 sign. It is displayed in front of the office of a local attorney who made an unsuccessful bid for Commonwealth's Attorney running on the Republican ticket a couple of years back.

Before the conventions, the yard signs that began popping up initially in this area were in support of Obama not McCain, an indication that the Democrat's widespread ground organization was already busy here. During the Democratic convention, I received more than one phone call from Obama headquarters in Blacksburg. A young woman asked whom I supported. When I replied that I supported Obama she then encouraged me to volunteer for local voter registration efforts. As an Obama supporterwell before the primaries, I was energized and full of renewed hope for our region and the Obama campaign. After all, Floyd County was one of two counties in this region where Obama defeated Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary in Virginia. Surely we had a chance to go blue in November. After the Republican Convention and the roll-out of Sarah Palin, the first large Virginia is McCain Country yard sign appeared. Thus began what is increasingly becoming a "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs", an indication that even here in rabid Republican territory the ground fight is being engaged.

My entertainment now as I drive back and forth to work every day has become one of paying particular attention to the "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs" as a barometer of the state of the ground game here. As I came around one bend driving through Montgomery County one morning in mid-September, a giant deep blue Obama08 yard sign popped into view where a much smaller version had been only the day before. It was now flanked by a large orange Sportsmen for Warner sign and a smaller sign supporting Boucher for Congress - the regional Democratic triumvirate. Actually, support for Warner and Boucher is so strong here it is even difficult to determine who they are running against if you are just driving through.

"Oh how wonderful," I thought, they've expanded their display. They're really getting into it!" When I returned home that afternoon I better understood why that yard sign display had grown. Directly across the road a giant blue McCain Country sign had been erected! But this was not the end. The next morning, heading down the mountain once again, I noticed another change at the same spot. Only the posts remained where the McCain Country sign had once stood. OMG, had someone ripped down the sign overnight?!? Not so. When I made the trek back up the mountain later that afternoon I discovered that the owner had repositioned the sign. Rather than facing the traffic coming up the hill, it was now positioned so that the Obama supporter across the road had to look at it every time he or she came out the front door! It also was now adorned with white Christmas lights so that it would show up in the dark!

Floyd County is not the only area where the "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs" is being waged Southwest Virginia. I noticed similar evidence of an intensifying ground game traveling in late September on Route 460 East and 29 North to Charlottesville to visit my son who is a student at the University of Virginia. Next door neighbors in many of the counties I traveled through were also battling it out with yard signs. I saw several instances where large McCain Country signs were balanced just next door or across the highway by equally large, sometimes homemade, Obama08 signs. On this trip, the sign count was about even until I came within about 30 miles of Charlottesville where the Obama signage began to outpace that for McCain.
Just the day before, Michelle Obama had been on the UVA campus speaking to hundreds of students. While visiting Charlottesville that week-end, my son and I passed by the headquarters for college students working for Obama. It was full of young people busily working on the local campaign. That week-end was a big canvassing week-end for them and many were out and about sporting Obama buttons and going door to door. Signs of the McCain campaign were much less evident. We saw one or two McCain bumper stickers and one individual wearing a McCain shirt.

The next week I received a phone call and e-mail message from local folks who were meeting at the Floyd Country Store to organize themselves to work locally in support of Obama. More good news for the Obama campaign here. The week following, I received a call from the Floyd County Obama Campaign asking me to make calls to get as many folks registered as possible before the October 6 deadline. The caller was actually someone I knew - a local high school student already involved in politics at her young age! Since the financial sector began collapsing in late September and as the election looms closer and closer, the ground game is intensifying here. My husband reported to me last week-end after his habitual Saturday morning excursion into town that, "There are Obama supporters all over town trying to get people registered before the deadline Monday."

While more evidence of McCain support also is popping up every day, it is being counter-balanced by even more support for Obama. My husband has now begun to keep tabs on the "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs" on his way to and from town. His most common refrain now as he comes in the door is "Guess who put up an Obama sign now?" Yard signs are popping up overnight around here like toadstools on a damp patch of earth. The same is true for my route to and from work not only in Floyd County but in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties as well. No matter from which direction I approach the county high school where I work, I am greeted by Obama yard signs. The largest is displayed in front of the local headquarters of the United Autoworkers who represent hundreds of workers across the road at the Volvo Truck plant, the most important employer in Pulaski County. And, Obama also is winning the battle of the bumper stickers. I've only seen two McCain-Palin stickers but many Obama stickers, especially on Interstate 81.

While the "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs seems to indicate that the region is surprisingly split between the two candidates, what are people themselves saying? Many folks I know around here adhere to the old adage that one should never discuss politics or religion because it only leads to intense arguments. People are surprisingly quiet during this election cycle. There is nothing like the energy and enthusiasm that characterized the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004. I only can report about conversations I've had with co-workers and others with whom I've crossed paths recently.

At the public school where I work, the bulk of opinion I've heard or overheard there since the primaries began supports a Republican viewpoint that big government is bad as are "liberals". That position is quite ironic considering that these folks rely on government funded public education for their livelihoods. And, while they make no bones about the fact that they don't trust Democrats, they are no great supporters of John McCain either. Some who were avid Bush supporters clearly don't have the same feelings for McCain. Quite frankly, people seem to be keeping their positions to themselves for the most part. If political conversations are going on, they are going on quietly and behind the scenes. Those who supported Bush in the past have little to say now in the face of our economic crisis although I can well imagine who they are blaming behind closed doors.

From what I have seen and the conversations I have had with others, it appears that what underlies people's views concerning the candidates falls into two relatively distinct categories. Some are taking a very reasoned approach to their selection. Others seem to be following gut-level emotional responses to the candidates. On the one hand, there is the young woman who assists me in the classroom. She has taken a very pragmatic and studied approach to her choice. She has read avidly all of the proposals the candidates have posted on their websites concerning different issues and evaluated them as to how likely they are to help her with her family's problems. She is one of those younger, low- income female voters to whom Sarah Palin is supposed to be so attractive. She earns an extremely low wage for assisting me, is in the middle of pursuing a teaching degree online, has a disabled husband and two elderly parents at home along with three young children. Initially she was a Hillary Clinton supporter but she switched to Obama during the primary race after reading his healthcare plan. That plan convinced her husband to switch to Obama as well. After the market meltdown, her father asked her to explain to him the differences between the McCain and Obama policy proposals. She took him to the internet and had him read the information on the candidates' websites. After doing so he told, "OK, I'm convinced. I know what I need to know. I'm voting for Obama" She told me that recently when her preacher began discussing the candidates from the pulpit she got up and walked out of the service with her children.

I had another interesting conversation with the receptionist at my local physician's when I went in for an office visit last week. After signing in for my appointment, rather than returning to my seat to read while waiting as I normally do, I ended up in an extended conversation with the receptionist, a woman in her mid-50s, about the second presidential debate we had watched the night before. A few, quick, initial exchanges between us signaled that we held similar views so we felt safe to speak our minds. This woman was formerly employed in mortgage banking and understood very well the implications of the current financial crisis and the need for leadership. She explained that her greatest source of frustration came from her unsuccessful attempts to get her husband and others to understand that it was the policy differences between the two candidates, not their personalities,that were paramount. As she explained to me, "they are responding emotionally and not using their heads. You know why that is, don't you?" We gave each other the knowing nod, which signaled the unutterable - his race. My nurse practitioner, a resident of Blacksburg, also indicated similar frustration during my appointment as she discussed intelligent, educated people she knew "whose emotions were playing a greater role in their decisions than their intellects."

But will Obama's race determine his fate in our region? Will the dreaded Bradley effect undermine his chances here? It's really hard to say because so many folks are keeping their cards so close to their chests this year. Are local Republicans trying to distance themselves from the failed Bush administration or are they simply dissatisfied with their party's nominee? I don't have the answer to that question. More than ever before around here it seems that for many who you are voting for in this election is a personal decision not to be discussed publicly. In my mind, we might actually see a reverse Bradley effect in some cases. There is no doubt that the extreme right wing evangelical Christians here will strongly support McCain simply due to the Palin Effect. I suspect, however, that there may be some Republicans who are so concerned about our economic future that they may go into the booth and vote for Obama while allowing friends and neighbors to presume they didn't.

The concern about our economic future here is palpable. High gas prices are squeezing the family budgets of others like me who have to commute long distances to keep a job in this area. Future job security also increased in prominence this past Friday after Governor Tim Kaine reported that the decline in state revenues that is projected as a consequence of the current economic crisis will require him to cut Department of Transportation jobs almost immediately. He also indicated that Pre-K through 12 education as well as higher education also will be on the budgetary chopping block. That announcement sent a chill through everyone at my workplace. I imagine it sent quite a chill through Floyd County as well since the largest employer in the county is the public school system. Furthermore, many people in this area also depend on Virginia Tech or Radford University for employment.

To bring you up-to-date on politics here during this past week-end, at about 11pm Friday my 22 year old son and his Peruvian girlfriend arrived at my home for their fall break from UVA. Before they could even get in the door my son blurted out, "Did you see the debates Mom? I couldn't believe it, yata, yata, yata........." We all continued to discuss the last two weeks of the campaign and its implications late into the night. Despite growing up in a very political household, my son has never displayed much energy and enthusiasm for politics. In fact, he's claimed that he hates politics. This week-end politics and watching political coverage occupied his time rather than college sports and ESPN. That's a real switch. He and his girlfriend also filled us in on the state of the race in Charlottesville. From their perspective, Charlottesville is Obama territory. On campus, as his girlfriend put it, "the Obama people are everywhere. There are some McCain supporters but they are much less noticeable. Most of our friends support Obama." They continued to relate stories about friends working on the campaign, displaying buttons and wearing wild outfits in support of the Senator. They also said that UVA students also are very enthusiastic about Joe Biden. My son in particular was very impressed with his speaking skills.

Now, let's return to the original question: Are the Blue Ridge Mountains turning bluer this year? I am cautiously optimistic. So far they are looking pretty purple from my vantage point. It has become clear that the Obama campaign has no qualms about coming into the heart of one of Virginia's most entrenched Republican strongholds to give the GOP a run for its money. And, there seem to be plenty of people here willing to help them. These efforts seem to be paying off for them as the election approaches. The last poll that I saw concerning Virginia reported that Obama and McCain were in a dead heat in our region. One definite indication of the Democrats belief that they can upset McCain in this area as well as their intention to stay and engage in this battle to the end is the surrogate they are dispatching to Virginia --- President Bill Clinton!

I took a break from writing this piece Sunday afternoon to watch the Clintons and Bidens in Scranton, Pennsylvania with my family. Bill claimed he was there to introduce Hillary who was there to introduce Joe Biden. He then claimed he would be leaving the rally immediately because the Obama campaign was dispatching him to Virginia. I wasn't surprised by the announcement because I had received an e-mail from the Obama campaign that Bill Clinton would be speaking at 6:15 on Sunday night in Roanoke. One pundit made a snide comment that he didn't believe there was anything that pressing going on in Virginia and suggested that this was more lukewarm support from Clinton for Obama. I just laughed because I knew exactly where he was heading and why.

Democrats of his stature usually are reserved for Northern Virginia where the party Democrats have focused more intensively because there is a much higher probability that their efforts will pay off. Sunday's Washington Post reported the Obama campaign's decision to send Clinton into "downstate Virginia" as a surprising turn of events. Unfortunately though not surprisingly, this morning when I checked the local media on the internet, both local TV stations and the Roanoke Times, there was little to no reporting on the Clinton rally. NPR reported that there were over one thousand people there. Not bad for a chilly Sunday evening. There was not one word about it mentioned in the morning Roanoke Times online. Nonetheless, as the Washington Post's Tim Craig suggested Sunday in his article "Va. Democrat's Surprising Plan: Call Bill Clinton" (October 12, 2008, p.C07), "[i]t does show a change of the times and how things are different than they were a decade ago."

So, who is winning the "Battle of the Dueling Yard Signs" around here? In terms of our unscientific count, Obama is clearly outpacing McCain. But the Obama campaign is running a distant second to some other competitors for signage space in area yards. The hands down winners in this competition are the local realty companies that are advertising homes and properties for sale, often at reduced prices. In some ways, Floyd County is no different than the rest of the country. Overall, will the state of Virginia turn blue in November for the first time in over 40 years? From what I'm witnessing and barring some unforeseen, cataclysmic event (which now-a-days is always possible), YOU BETCHA!!!!!!!!!!!!