We are now less than three weeks away from the Virginia presidential primary.
With Iowa and New Hampshire behind us, we now have clarity on this: There isn’t much, and probably won’t be for a while. Nevada and South Carolina are yet to come — on Feb. 22 and Feb. 29. Barring some surprise, six legitimate candidates will make their way to the Virginia ballot on March 3 — Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — plus a few others who would like to be.
Here’s what we know for certain: This will be the most competitive Democratic presidential primary in Virginia ever. Now, that’s not saying much because we’ve only had four. The most interesting was the first — the original Super Tuesday in 1988. That was a creation of Democratic moderates who thought by clustering Southern states on a single day they’d have more influence and produce a more centrist nominee. They were wrong. In Virginia, Jesse Jackson was the clear winner — 45% to 22% apiece for Al Gore and Michael Dukakis. The other three Democratic primaries —in 2004, 2008 and 2016 —weren’t competitive at all.
The most competitive presidential primary in Virginia was on the Republican side — when Marco Rubio tried to make a last stand against Donald Trump in the Old Dominion four years ago. Rubio fell short — Trump won 35% to 32%. That ended Rubio’s campaign, but gave us his infamous “small hands” comment at a rally in Salem. That 2016 Republican campaign actually gives us some insight into this year’s Democratic campaign. Fourteen states vote on March 3. None of the candidates are well-positioned to contest them all, so what we’ll see are campaigns picking their spots. Biden will focus on the Southern states with lots of African American voters — Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Buttigieg has already made big ad buys in Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina and Virginia. Sanders has set his sights on California, which is so big it will overshadow all the others on March 3. Realistically, every candidate will need to compete there. Texas remains a wild card, a big one. Massachusetts and Vermont are home states for Warren and Sanders, so perhaps won’t be contested. But who knows how Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah will go? That brings us back to Virginia:
1. Virginia might wind up being a battleground. We can’t rival California for heft, but candidates eager to finish first somewhere may well find Virginia an appealing secondary target. Biden’s campaign rests on his ability to win African American voters and Virginia’s population is 19% black — which means the African American share of Democratic primary voters will be even higher. He can’t afford to skip Virginia. For that same reason, Virginia is a good place for other candidates to show they can win a state with a significant minority population. Buttigieg, as we’ve seen, has already invested here. If you’re Klobuchar, trying to find some place to notch a first place, this is as reasonable a place to try as any. Warren is in Arlington today, no doubt thinking the same thing. And Sanders has a track record here, even if it isn’t particularly impressive. Finally, Bloomberg is spending wildly everywhere, but has devoted particular attention to Virginia. He’s made multiple campaign stops in Virginia (none near us), flooded the state with campaigners and opened at least six offices, including ones in Roanoke and Danville. The latter two are notable because so many campaigns rarely venture outside the urban crescent. It’s unclear whether Bloomberg can buy his way into the race, but we already know that Virginia will be a test case for his candidacy.
2. Could Sanders win Virginia? His showing thus far has been unimpressive. In 2016, he took 49.6% in Iowa. This year, he took just 26.1%. In 2016, he took 60.4% in New Hampshire. This year, he took 25.8%. We now know the true size of Sanders’ base; his 2016 figures were inflated because he was the only candidate not named Clinton. Nonetheless, Sanders is arguably in a stronger position this year because the rest of the field is splintered; that’s exactly how Trump won his nomination four years ago. It’s unclear how much Sanders can expand his base, but as long as there are so many other candidates, he doesn’t have to. That brings us back to Sanders’ showing in Virginia in 2016. It was one of his weakest performances of the whole year: Clinton clubbed him here 64% to 35%. Based on what we’ve seen from Iowa and New Hampshire, the actual pro-Sanders vote is probably a lot less than what he tallied in 2016; the rest was simply an anti-Clinton vote. Whatever that number is, though, Sanders probably has a bigger base in Virginia than other candidates — such as Klobuchar — who are starting from scratch here. So if Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar split the not-Sanders vote, and Warren fades as an alternative, it’s not that hard to imagine Sanders winning Virginia the same way he won New Hampshire. For what it’s worth, Sanders’ best locality in 2016 was Floyd County, where he took 70% of the vote. Otherwise he did best in places that had colleges: He took 66% in Harrisonburg and 59% in Montgomery County, but couldn’t even crack 30% in Alexandria, otherwise one of the state’s most liberal bastions. In majority-black Sussex County, he polled just 9%.
3. Democrats ought to welcome a long campaign. We understand they’re eager to crown a winner, but they shouldn’t be too hasty. Politics employs lots of sports metaphors, so here are a few. We’re only 3.5% of the way through the voting. Baseball plays a 162-game season so in baseball terms, we’re not even one week into the season. Nobody would declare a World Series winner based on the first week’s worth of games. Yes, Biden has gotten shelled in his first two outings, but he really could come back and win. In baseball, we’d think nothing of that. Klobuchar’s showing in New Hampshire was impressive, but can she replicate that? Buttigieg is a young phenom off to a fast start but can he last a whole season? Bloomberg hasn’t taken a swing yet; can he even hit? Party activists should want to know which candidates can handle adversity and play their way out of a slump (looking at you, Biden and Warren). A long campaign may not necessarily produce a strong candidate, but a short one could easily produce an untested one. Democrats should remember that in late May of last year, the Washington Nationals were in next-to-last place, already written off. Yet they came back to win the World Series. Baseball teaches patience, one of many reasons it is superior to politics.