Barack Obama Wins Conservative Virginia

His win over John McCain turned the typically red state blue.

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Democrat Barack Obama, bolstered by strong support from African-American and Hispanic voters, tonight became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win Virginia.

As expected, he posted big margins in the more liberal counties of Northern Virginia, or NOVA. But to eke out his victory, he also made inroads in the crucial swing area of Prince William County, once considered the dividing line between NOVA and the more conservative ROVA, or "rest of Virginia." And exit polls showed he performed better in the eastern half of the state than Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

Earnie Porta, a Democrat who is mayor of Occoquan in Prince William County, in early October said that after four years of canvassing the state for Democratic candidates he was skeptical that the state was turning blue fast enough to give a win to Obama. He had found many independent-leaning Democrats and older white voters who said they were uncomfortable with or feared Obama. But Porta says he changed his mind about Obama's prospects in the weeks leading up to the election.

"There was a transformation—the voters we had marked as undecided were going overwhelmingly for Obama," he said. "We saw signs sprouting. We were seeing a much more diverse segment of the population coming out for him." Exit polls showed that 92 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama, as did 67 percent of Hispanic voters. African-Americans made up about 21 percent of today's electorate, and Hispanics about 5 percent. McCain won an estimated 58 percent of the white vote.

Obama got a taste of what it's like to win in Virginia when he swamped Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 points in the state's February primary. And during the intervening months, Virginia evolved into one of the unlikeliest battleground states. With the exception of Democrat Lyndon Johnson's win over Barry Goldwater in the presidential contest here in 1964, the previous Democratic victory had come in 1948. Voters here, however, in 1989 elected the nation's first black governor, Democrat Douglas Wilder, and they've put Democrats in their top elective office, from Gov. Tim Kaine to U.S. Sen. Jim Webb—and now, Sen.-elect Mark Warner.

McCain had expected to do well here. He won the state's February primary, holding off a challenge by popular conservative Christian Mike Huckabee. And he had a natural appeal to the state's robust military community, including high levels of active duty and retired military. By picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain energized swaths of the state's Christian conservatives, though his choice hurt him with some of the Republican Party's economic and national security conservatives who say they found Palin woefully unprepared.

But McCain was largely done in by the worsening national economic crisis, Obama's superior funding and ground game, and a spike in voter registration among those between the ages of 17 and 25, the Democrats' sweet spot. By early October, Obama began to consistently lead in the polls and never looked back.

For Porta, Obama's win was an emotional one—particularly, he says, because just 40 years ago it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry in Virginia. "When you look at Barack Obama's life story—the hurdles he had to overcome, the fact that he could win in Virginia—it really says the best about us."

"This demonstrated that, for the first time in our history, that old saying is true: Anyone can grow up to be president."

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