While there’s a raging debate about alternate paths to victory if Mitt Romney loses Ohio, it’s difficult to conceive of a plausible scenario in which he wins the election without taking Virginia. Though polls remain tight in the state, absentee voting (which Virginia allows residents to do in person) is particularly encouraging for Romney.
The indispensable Dave Wasserman at Cook Political Report has put together a detailed spreadsheet breaking down Virginia absentee voting by county. The bottom line: while, compared with four years ago, absentee voting is off just about 1 percent in generally Republican counties that went for John McCain in 2008 , it’s down nearly 14 percent in counties that went for Obama. Wasserman cautions that these numbers don’t necessarily spell doom for Obama. But they are a troubling early indicator.
The most heavily Democratic counties (which even went for John Kerry in 2004 even when he lost the state by a wide margin) have seen an 18 percent drop off compared to four years ago. Of the large counties in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, which accounted for most of Obama’s margin, absentee voting is way off — 21 percent in Fairfax, for instance, and 20 percent in Arlington.
In 2008, Obama won Virginia by just over 232,000 votes. As a thought experiment, the Washington Examiner decided to see what would happen if turnout in each county follows the precise patterns we’re seeing in early absentee voting in each county. So, for example, in Fairfax, where Obama won by 109,000 votes in 2008, our theoretical Obama margin would be about 86,500 votes. When we do this for all counties, Obama’s statewide margin is reduced by 75,548 votes, to about 157,000. And note that we are conservatively estimating that Obama gets exactly the same percentage margins in every single county that he got in the 2008 wave. This is incredibly unlikely even if you trust the most optimistic polls for Obama.
Four years ago, Virginia ended up being a bellwether. Obama carried the state 52.6 percent to 46.3 percent and carried the national popular vote 52.9 percent to to 45.6 percent. As Conn Carroll has noted, it may provide us with the first sense of where the presidential race is going on election night (polls close there at 7 p.m.). One of the most persistent arguments over the past several weeks has involved which pollsters and types of polls to trust. Should we trust battleground state polls showing Obama with the clear edge, or should national polls that are relatively more favorable to Romney be given more weight? Within the battleground polls, how will the partisan composition of the electorate compare to 2008? Or 2004? Or 2010? If Romney over-performs in Virginia, it could be an early indication that conservatives’ skepticism about state polls were well-founded and that he could take the presidency. On the other hand, if he’s struggling there early, it’s likely to be a disappointing night for Republicans.