What can Virginia tell us about the presidential race? Seattle transplant and UW student Lisa Strube-Kilgore reflects on life in a purple state.
SEATTLE — All the polls seem to agree: Virginia’s looking pretty purple these days. Historically, Virginia was considered a democratic stronghold, but it’s also a deeply conservative state socially. Virginia’s 13 electoral votes went to President Obama in 2008, but this year could see a reversal as polls there seem to show the state as a toss-up.
The idea of living in a battleground state can be pretty foreign to us here in true blue Washington, where it can feel like you’re more likely to run across a unicorn than a swing voter. Even the idea of undecided voters seems to baffle us, but as a native Virginian, they’re no mystery to me. I know them. They’re my friends and family, my old neighbors and classmates, and right now, they’re the people every pollster and political aficionado wants to talk to. The outcome of this election, as pundits and analysts keep telling us, is very likely in their hands. Everyone wants to know how Virginians (and voters in states like it) are going to vote on November 6. Well, if you ask me, if you really want a good idea of what’s happening in Virginia, you need to head to Lynchburg.
Lynchburg is located just about dead-center in the state, and has a uniquely split personality. Though it’s a reasonably good-sized city with a population of more than 75,000, it lacks connections to major interstate highways, keeping it fairly isolated. It’s also home to Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and currently a mandatory stop for any Republican candidate on a campaign tour. In Lynchburg, seventh-generation “yellow dog democrats” (so called because they’ll tell you with a smile that they’d vote for a yellow dog if it was running as a Democrat) live alongside old-school Moral Majority conservatives. I know —I grew up there. If there’s anywhere that’s a microcosm of Virginia’s dueling selves, it’s my hometown.
I spoke to Colby and Gary Takacs, two lifelong Lynchburg residents currently raising two small children near the downtown area. Gary is a senior recreation specialist for the city parks and recreation department and an Air Force Reservist, and Colby is a fitness and aquatics instructor at a local nursing home. Both supported President Obama in the last election, even making the trip to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. I called them to ask for their observations about the political atmosphere in Lynchburg today as opposed to four years ago.
“I feel like most people that I have talked to are mad still about the state of the economy,” said Gary. “I don’t think Virginia was hit as hard as some areas, but I feel like people are still mad.” Colby agreed: “I think there’s a stronger Republican feel; I feel like people are leaning toward Mitt Romney, but I do still see a lot of Obama stuff in yards. It looks like the support is equal, but when I talk to people it feels like they’re leaning more toward Romney.”
I said that it sounded as though the Obama supporters were less vocal this time, and asked Colby if she had any thoughts as to why. “I don’t really know why that is,” she answered. “I think that some people, if they are supportive of Obama, they are maybe afraid to speak up. Even though I voted for Obama last time, I wouldn’t talk about it now.”
I asked why people wouldn’t feel comfortable voicing support for Obama today, and Gary answered from across the room. ”Everybody’s all in the same boat; everybody’s broke, everybody’s mad, and Romney’s campaign is kind of saying everything you want to hear.”
Since one of the major employers in the area is Centra Health, a large, multi-hospital health-care conglomerate, I was curious about what effect the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has had on voter opinion. I spoke to Naomi Renald, a Centra employee who works in the emergency room at Lynchburg General Hospital.
She said that the perception around the hospital campus about Obamacare was overwhelmingly negative. When I asked why, she told me that she’d heard rumors that “if a patient went to the hospital and was discharged and then went back to the hospital for the same issue within 30 days, the hospital would be fined by the government.”
This kind of misinformation is apparently rampant: she also mentioned hearing of doctors refusing to accept Medicare or Medicaid any longer, since the passage of the bill. I asked her if those rumors would have an impact on her vote, and she replied, “I don’t know — it’s hard to know what to believe anymore. It’s important, but you have to look at the big picture.”
That “big picture” perspective may be what’s dwindling as the election nears. Colby said that, anecdotally at least, she’s noticed an increase in single-issue voters. She recalls a co-worker declaring that she supported Romney because of his stance on abortion. While that is an important issue, said Colby, “I don’t think it’s really what [we] should be focused on.”
“People may not necessarily agree with Romney or think that he can fix it, but they feel like they want something different,” she said.
In other words, in Virginia, it may be live by the sword of Change, and die by the sword of Change.