Last night’s primary results played out more or less as expected. Romney eked out a far-from-convincing win in Ohio, Santorum took Tennessee handily, and Romney held Idaho by a sizable margin. For Ron Paul, it was a disappointing night as he failed to take his first state, losing to Santorum in North Dakota and coming in third in Alaska. But the Texas congressman can notch two more second-place finishes in ND, and VA [VT too, h/t Jack Ross] and (all but) a tie for second in Idaho.
But, as Paul detractors will be quick to note, he and Romney were the only candidates on the ballot in Virginia so a total of 40.5% is somewhat less impressive than it might otherwise be, right? Not exactly.
There are a few reasons why Virginia’s primary holds lessons for today’s GOP:
- 1/3 of primary voters were Independents, roughly the same amount as the country as a whole, and 2/3 of them broke for Ron Paul. (CBS Exit Poll)
- Virginia is the largest per-capita recipient of defense spending among all the states. For 40 percent of Virginia’s voters to go for the peace candidate in a Republican primary is striking.
- Voters identifying as ‘conservative’ broke for Romney almost 2-1, yet 76 percent of voters whose most important criterion for a candidate was that they be ‘very conservative’ voted for Ron Paul. Those most concerned with a candidate’s ‘moral character’ voted for Ron Paul 2-1 as well.
- Paul garnered 61 percent of the under-30 demographic and 63 percent of voters aged 30-44. While Romney had a lock on higher-earning voters, among families making less than $50,000 a year, they were dead even.
The third congressional district was the only district Paul was able to pull a majority, but it’s an important one, containing some of the most heavily-populated sections of Hampton Roads. In every major urban area south of Northern Virginia, Paul outperformed the statewide average, receiving a majority of votes in Portsmouth and Norfolk, coming within 22 votes in Hampton and 125 votes in Richmond. Counting only the Richmond votes from the 3rd congressional district (the other Richmond district is largely the Western suburbs), Ron Paul had a 62.2 percent majority.
Virginia’s other urban areas were also favorable to Paul, who scored victories in Lynchburg and Charlottesville, and came within .8 percent in Harrisonburg. The massive swath of Piedmont that is the 5th congressional district consistently ran five points higher for Paul than the state as a whole. By any account, even with only one opponent, these numbers are extraordinarily encouraging for Paul.
So how did Romney win? I’m reminded of that famous George Wallace quote about, “building a bridge over the Potomac for all the white liberals fleeing to Virginia.” The two statistically middling counties, Stafford and Fauquier (39.5 and 40 percent for Ron Paul, respectively) lie right on the outer limit of the DC suburbs. Working inward, Paul still outperformed the state average in the Western counties of Frederick, Warren (58%!) and Prince William. Closer still to DC, in every county in the 8th and 11th congressional districts, Ron Paul underperformed the state average, in some cases dramatically. It’s not hard to see how Ron Paul’s ‘throw them all out’ campaign would fail to gain traction in a region as inundated with bureaucrats as Northern Virginia. In Fairfax county he was buried under 39,367 votes, of which he gained only 34.7 percent, and the percentages are worse in Arlington and Alexandria.
In other words, the closer you get to DC, the more moderate the candidate. And that’s interesting because the rest of the state sends the opposite message. It’s easy to dismiss Paul’s successes in Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Richmond proper as the work of college activists (all three are big college towns), but the comparison with their suburbs is interesting. Henrico County and the 7th district parts of Richmond all went strongly for Romney, but the city of Richmond went decisively for Paul. Same with Albemarle County and Charlottesville.
Looking at the urban areas of Northern Virginia versus the Hampton Roads, they are similar in that both rely heavily upon the federal government for economic success, Hampton Roads probably skews more heavily towards the military. Paul’s success in Norfolk and Portsmouth speaks to a desire for a realistic assessment of our military commitments and spending, versus Northern Virginia which can be characterized largely as self-interested, given their geographic and material stake in the status quo. But big government is self-perpetuating, and the din of the contractors, bureaucrats, and policy nabobs has proved deafening once again.