Mark Twain supposedly said “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
As with many things we think we know, that is not quite accurate. The exact quote, given to a New York Journal reporter in 1897 after rumors of the great humorist’s demise had circulated, was “the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Close enough, but not quite accurate.
The same thing applies to the Democratic Party’s support in rural Virginia. Many people — me among them — have written that Democrats are on the decline in rural areas, that their support has collapsed, that they are on the verge of extinction, or certain other colorful turns of phrase.
In some ways, that is very true. Not to belabor the subject, but let’s review just some of the ways that Democrats have disappeared in rural Virginia, particularly (but not exclusively) west of the Blue Ridge:
At one point in the early 1990s, it was possible to travel from the Shenandoah Valley to the state’s westernmost tip and never enter a Republican district. Now there are just three Democrats in the General Assembly from west of the Blue Ridge. One of those is Del. Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County, which is technically west of the mountains but not what we usually think of when we employ that term. In terms of west of the Blue Ridge and, say, south of Interstate 64, we have just two Democrats: state Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke and Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke. Of those two, or three, western Democrats, two (Edwards and Gooditis) are retiring. Come January, there may be just one Democrat in the legislature from this part of the state — Rasoul is unopposed. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt reported recently on how Democrats have been unable to field candidates in many rural districts: “Why Democrats are struggling in rural Virginia.”
Up until the early 1990s, the state’s three westernmost congressional districts were represented by Democrats. Now they’re the most solidly Republican districts in the state — and by solid I mean that Morgan Griffith took 73% of the vote last year.
And then there’s this: Localities that once were reliably Democratic have now completely flipped. Buchanan County once voted two-thirds Democratic in presidential years. Last time around, it voted 83.5% Republican, making it the most Republican locality in the state that year. As recently as 2001, Mark Warner carried Lee County in the governor’s race. In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin took 87.6% of the vote there, his highest vote share anywhere in the state.
You get the idea. All this — and more — is true but there’s also another truth. That’s what today’s column is about.
We’re now close to the midpoint of Youngkin’s term. Candidates for the 2025 governor’s race are already lining up — unofficially, of course, because that’s how the game is played. That prompted me to revisit the 2021 election returns with an eye toward 2025. Those 2021 statewide races — swept by Republicans — were close. They also saw the Democratic percentage of the vote in rural areas plunge. Here’s the question I set out to investigate: How much better would Democrats have had to do in rural areas for them to win statewide? After all, we know that Democrats, even in defeat, ran up big margins in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. Given how close the 2021 races were, could they have won if they’d done just a smidge better in rural localities? And since “smidge” is an imprecise term — except in your grandma’s hand-me-down recipes — just how many votes might we be talking about?
This is a somewhat controversial topic among some Democrats. One argument is that Democrats should pay just a wee bit more attention to rural areas — they don’t need to win, they just need to do better. After all, Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency in 2016 if she’d run just a bit better with rural voters in Florida and North Carolina, or perhaps some other combination of the swing states she lost. The countervailing argument is that the return on investment simply isn’t there for Democrats — that rural voters are lost forever and Democrats should focus on trying to maximize their vote in urban areas. (My observation: That may be a fine argument if you’re simply focused on trying to win statewide elections but doesn’t help if you’re trying to win congressional seats or state legislatures, which are chosen through geographically based districts. For those races, the current Democratic vote is inefficiently distributed by being too concentrated in urban areas.)
To test these questions, I decided to look at the races for attorney general in 2013, 2017 and 2021. I did this for two reasons: First, two of these three races were exceptionally close. Mark Herring won the 2013 election by 165 votes and lost the 2021 election by 26,536, which may sound like a lot but represented a margin of just 0.9%. Second, these three elections all included the same candidate: Herring, a Democrat who won two terms and then narrowly lost a bid for a third. That would seem to minimize the variations from one campaign to another; this is the closest apples-to-apples comparison we can get.
I also decided to start my comparisons in Southwest Virginia, partly because that’s part of our home territory but also because that’s the part of the state that has seen the most dramatic Democratic collapse over time (part of a large Democratic collapse across all of Appalachia — West Virginia used to be dark blue, now it’s dark red).
Here’s what I found.
On a statewide basis, Herring’s vote totals went up in each of the three statewide campaigns he ran:
2013: 1,103,777 votes
2017: 1,385,390 votes
2021: 1,620,564 votes
Mathematically speaking, the only reason Herring lost in 2021 was that Jason Miyares saw the Republican vote totals rise even more:
2013: 1,103,612 votes
2017: 1,209,540 votes
2021: 1,647,100 votes
We see the same thing when we look at the governor’s races over those years. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won more votes in 2021 than he did in 2013, more votes than Ralph Northam did in 2017, more votes than all but one other candidate for governor in Virginia history. Unfortunately for him, that one exception was the guy he was running against.
Some of that is explainable by Virginia’s rising population, but also by a higher-than-usual turnout. Virginia in 2021 had a higher voter turnout (54.9%) than any year since the Motor Voter Act took effect in 1995 and increased the registration rolls. The key to that Republican sweep in 2021 was that the increased turnout was overwhelmingly Republican.
We see that most clearly in the counties in Southwest Virginia. I looked at our eight westernmost localities: Buchanan County, Dickenson County, Lee County, Russell County, Scott County, Tazewell County, Wise County and the city of Norton.
In all these localities, we saw the Democratic share of the vote fall the same way that Isaac Newton’s apple fell — down, down, down. In 2013, Herring took 32% in Buchanan County. By 2021, his vote share in Buchanan was 16.2%, just about half of what it had been. Same in Lee County, where his 24.1% share in 2013 became 12.7% in 2021.
Now, here’s why math is so fun — but also tricky. While Herring’s vote share was down in all eight localities from 2013 to 2021, his actual vote total was up in half of them from 2017 to 2021. In those four localities — Dickenson County, Russell County, Tazewell County and Norton — his vote wasn’t up much but he still increased his totals.
The locality where he saw a particularly big increase from 2017 to 2021 was Tazewell County, so let’s look at how Herring fared there.
2013: 2,474 votes
2017: 1,890 votes
2021: 1,952 votes
This is typical of the other localities in Southwest that I looked at. The big drop in Democratic votes was from 2013 to 2017, which was otherwise a big Democratic year statewide. In 2021, the total number of Democratic votes often went up — but the Republican vote totals went up even more.
Here’s how that Republican vote in Tazewell County grew over the same period, as measured by votes for Mark Obenshain in 2013, John Adams in 2017 and Miyares in 2021:
From 2013 to 2017, Democrats lost 584 votes in Tazewell County. From 2017 to 2021, they gained back 62 of those, for a net eight-year loss of 522.
Over that same period, though, Republicans picked up 819 votes from 2013 to 2017 and 3,797 from 2017 to 2021 for a net eight-year gain of 4,616.
Again, we see similar patterns in half the localities I looked at in Southwest; in the other half, the Democratic drop continued unabated over the election cycles.
I draw two takeaways from this:
- If we just look from 2017 to 2021, Democrats might actually be on the rebound in some rural communities. It may not be much of a rebound — Herring’s vote was up three in Dickenson County, up eight in Russell County, up 63 in Norton — but at least it wasn’t another drop. And in some places where his vote totals did fall, they didn’t fall much. In Wise County, he lost just eight votes. In Scott County, 24. Lee County was the big exception, where his numbers fell 418. If you’re a Democrat looking for good news in rural Virginia, this may be it: Maybe the party’s collapse has bottomed out in many places. (Lee County’s just not one of those places.)
- The bigger story, though, might be how Republicans have managed to increase their vote here so dramatically in localities that have been losing population.
This isn’t simply a matter of former Democratic voters converting to Republicans, although there’s surely some of that. This is a matter of Republicans growing voters out of nonvoters. Let’s look at Russell County:
Here’s how Herring fared in Russell County:
We see the same pattern as in Tazewell: a drop from 2013 to 2017 then a slight rebound (all of eight votes) from 2017 to 2021.
But look at the Republican vote:
The Republican vote in Russell County almost doubled over eight years! During that same period the county’s population dropped by almost 11%.
The story here seems not so much Democratic failure in rural Virginia — that’s real but the failure happened some time ago — as it is Republican success.
Here’s where that supercharged Republican turnout in rural Virginia in 2021 is both impressive, and not very impressive. Obviously the raw numbers are impressive, as we can see in these examples — 61% of Miyares’ winning margin came from his “extra” votes in these eight westernmost localities. If I continued this math with more localities in Southwest Virginia, we could claim that Miyares owes his election to that turnout in Southwest.
Here’s something else impressive: That turnout surge in Southwest Virginia was bigger than it was in most places of the state. In Russell County, turnout jumped from 37% in 2017 to 52% in 2021, an increase of 15 percentage points, tied with Powhatan County for the biggest increase in the state. In Dickenson County and Tazewell County, the increase was 13 percentage points. In Buchanan County, 10 percentage points.
Here’s where it’s not so impressive: All those counties still had some of the lowest voter turnout in the state, according to numbers crunched by the Virginia Public Access Project. Buchanan County had a turnout of just 40%, Dickenson County 47%, Tazewell County 50%. Russell County’s, as we’ve seen, was up by a lot but still only 52%. By contrast, in Goochland County it was 71% and in Powhatan County it was 70%. That’s why, as I’ve written before, I think those Republicans who want to restrict early voting are making a strategic mistake (and why Youngkin is making a good strategic move by pushing it). At this point, there’s a lot more upside for Republicans than Democrats if they push early voting, particularly in these low-turnout but high-reward counties in Southwest Virginia.
The challenge for Democrats in 2025 will be to see if they can, at the very least, arrest the slide in the rural counties where they are sliding, and do what they can to increase it in the counties where they’ve stabilized. However, the challenge for Republicans will be to replicate these big-by-historical-measures 2021 turnout figures in what are historically low-turnout counties.
Just to check my conclusions, I looked at the three localities that saw the least population change in the state in the last census: Accomack County on the Eastern Shore (up 0.75%), Dinwiddie County in Southside (down 0.19%) and Northampton County on the Eastern Shore (down 0.86%).
The trendlines in both those counties were somewhat different from the counties in Southwest: In those counties, the Democratic vote increased consistently from 2013 to 2017 to 2021 (again, I’m using the attorney general’s race since it had a consistent Democratic candidate over those years). However, the Republican vote increased even more.
|Year||Democratic vote||Republican vote|
|Year||Democratic vote||Republican vote|
Yes, in a county with almost no population growth, the Republican vote almost doubled over an eight-year period.
|Year||Democratic vote||Republican vote|
Here we see a rural county that Democrats won in 2013 and 2017 but lost in 2021, even though the Democratic vote grew. They lost because the Republican vote grew, too, and by a lot more.
Based on these numbers, I think we need to revise the way we talk about rural politics. The Democratic vote in many places (but certainly not all) has not fallen in terms of raw votes —at least over a fairly recent time period. (If you go back further in time, it certainly has.) Indeed, in some of these places it’s actually grown a little. However, it’s been swamped by an increasing turnout that has broken overwhelmingly Republican.
This observation is full of irony: Democrats are traditionally the ones who like to position themselves as proponents of a larger electorate while Republicans are most traditionally aligned with “election security.” However, in many rural areas, that larger electorate actually has benefited Republicans.
So while I originally asked how many more votes Democrats would need from rural areas to win, the answer may be to a very different question: How much can Republicans continue to increase rural turnout?