Last week, I outlined the change in party registration figures in a handful of swing states. One of the footnotes to that post was that since Virginia does not have its citizens register by party, such an analysis was more difficult in that state. However, the growth in the registration rolls in Virginia may very well play an important role in this election. Bush won the state by 262,217 votes in 2004; as of September 8th of this year, more than 285,000 people have been added to the registration rolls since that election. The Obama campaign believes that they will see a big payoff from these new voters.
While we don't know the party of the new registrants in Virginia, we do know where those people have been registered and we may be able to draw some conclusions about their likely behavior based on this information. The map below shows the increase (or decrease) in the number of registered voters in each of Virginia's counties since 2004.The counties with the largest registration increases are located in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. Loudon County has added 31,798 new voters to the polls, Fairfax has 25,002 new registrants, and Prince William County has 16,682 more people registered than it did in 2004. (View the top ten counties here: ). There are also big increases in registration in the counties surrounding Hampton Roads in the southeast of the state and in Chesterfield County, near Richmond.
These figures have made some Democrats very hopeful about Obama's chances in the state. However, it is important to gain some perspective about the extent to which these new registrants will matter in Virginia. For example, look at the types of counties where these new registrants are located.Over 100,000 new registrations have been logged in counties where Kerry won less than 40% of the two-party vote in 2004 while just 71,466 new registrants are in counties where Kerry beat Bush. Of course, some counties that went for Bush in 2004 may very well go for Obama in 2008 and the Obama campaign may also be registering large numbers of new voters in heavily Republican counties. But it is important to note that the jump in registrants has hardly been concentrated in overwhelmingly Democratic areas. (See a map of the 2004 presidential vote by county here: ).
We have heard a great deal about the role that Northern Virginia will play in the contest. However, we should recognize that while the increase in registrants in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC has been significant--over 100,000 new voters in this area--this is just a drop in the bucket in a state with over 4.8 million registered voters. In 2004, the DC suburbs in Northern Virginia accounted for 32.4% of all registered voters in the state; now, that same area accounts for 32.8% of the state's registered voters. There is no doubt that the growth in Northern Virginia is dramatic, but it takes time to substantially change the demographic and political balance in a state as large as Virginia. Thus, Northern Virginia accounts for just a slightly larger share of the state's electorate than it did four years ago.
Ultimately, it appears that polls are showing a tight campaign in Virginia because a significant share of people who voted for Bush in 2004 are expressing a preference for Obama in this election, not because of the new voters in the state. This is not to say that these new registrants won't matter. While new voters in Virginia won't be the reason that the race close, they could make the difference if the race is close.