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The High-Income "Democrat" in Fairfax County

by: Kenton Ngo

Thu Aug 27, 2009 at 04:40:21 PM EDT

To understand the politics of Virginia's largest county, one must remember that Fairfax County voters are, on average, far more wealthy than the rest of the state. However, the county is so large and diverse that there is some nuance to that--there are plenty of middle class areas, and some areas that are wealthy beyond means imaginable. Certain blocks of the county are so wealthy that the Census Bureau doesn't even bother to give an actual figure for their median incomes--they just say $200,000+.

In 2006 and 2008, Fairfax County delivered huge margins for Democrats for Senator Jim Webb and President Barack Obama. Democrats carried the county by 18.9% and 64,273 votes in 2006, and 21.18% and 109,365 votes in 2008. Democrats, buoyed by this huge Obama surge, are confident of similar margins this year.

However, there is one chink in the armor, as the map below demonstrates. Despite the higher turnout, in certain areas of the county Barack Obama won precincts by narrower raw vote margins than Jim Webb (light blue), and in a handful of cases lost precincts carried by Webb (light gray).

Now, Democrats were able to make up for those losses by bringing thousands of first-time and infrequent voters out in the dark blue precincts. Meanwhile, there was only one precinct where McCain 2008 won by a narrower raw vote margin than Allen 2006.

Using raw vote margins is a somewhat hamfisted method, but it illustrates the point well--there is a wide swath of the county that was more inclined to vote Webb 06/McCain 08, and it was larger than the group that voted Allen 06/Obama 08. We can posit that Obama's larger victory in Fairfax was not necessarily Republicans voting for Obama (in fact, Republicans voting for Webb turned away from him, for a reason we will discuss), but rather dormant Democrats turning out in droves in already-Democratic areas.

But what do all those problem precincts in light blue and gray have in common? And what does it mean up and down the ticket this year? Answer below the fold.

Kenton Ngo :: The High-Income "Democrat" in Fairfax County
Precincts where Webb won by a larger raw vote margin and Webb precincts that flipped to McCain track almost perfectly with income. Below, I have overlaid median household income from the 2000 Census by block group (exact precinct splits are unavailable).

These areas are a problem for the 2009 Democratic slate. While keeping the Bush-era tax cuts for families making under $200,000 covered the majority of Americans, it did not cover people in these problem precincts. They voted for Jim Webb for social reasons--disgust at his thinly veiled racism, and cultural disillusionment with the "Old Virginia" mentality that had been antagonizing them for years. However, 2008 carried few of those currents, and a direct economic hit to high-income voters who were loath to see their taxes raised.

In 2009, Democrats and Republicans have almost switched roles from 2006--and that is a huge problem for the Democratic ticket. Bob McDonnell is trying to cast high-income areas of Northern Virginia against the rest of the state. McDonnell has plastered "Fairfax's Own" on yard signs here, and is hammering Creigh Deeds on taxes and spending.

Deeds must hold on to high-income precincts that voted for Jim Webb by convincing them that he will fight for Northern Virginia's interests, and unlike Mark Warner in 2001 and Tim Kaine in 2005--urban Democrats running against rural Republicans--Deeds will not be able to seize onto that by default like his predecessors did.

Without the cultural currents in 2001, 2005, and 2006 that pitted Northern Virginia embodied in an Democratic urban candidate against Southern Virginia embodied in a Republican rural candidate, Democrats will repeat 2008 when economic interests trumped social interests for high-income voters. This time, however, we won't have a surge of lower and middle-income voters because they are less likely to turn out. This time, we have an urban Republican running against a rural Democrat.

This is not to say Creigh Deeds is doomed--this might not matter at all if McDonnell's Northern Virginia messaging falls flat. And if Deeds is truly able to bring out the first-time and rare voters that propelled Obama to huge margins in dark blue precincts, then this doesn't matter for him. Just because he doesn't make Northern Virginians believe that he is one of them by default like his predecessors doesn't mean that he can't either convince them of that fact, or use social issues to negate McDonnell's economic and cultural appeal. That's why Deeds hammering McDonnell on touchy issues like choice and guns has the potential to be a great issue--only when you have a rural Democrat versus an urban Republican can Democrats gain by going after social issues.

There are important downticket considerations also. We include below the most-affected House of Delegates races this year by a potential cleavage of the electorate along income lines:

Using this income map tells us quite a bit about the internal dynamics of the districts highlighted above.

34th District - Del. Margi Vanderhye (D)
Margi Vanderhye won by the narrowest of margins in 2007, and is the Democrat in the gravest peril this year. Running against a well-funded opponent with strong national connections, Vanderhye can ill afford top-ticket Democrats losing upper-income voters to Bob McDonnell. Her district is composed nearly entirely of the richest of the rich in the entire Commonwealth.

35th District - OPEN
Democrat Mark Keam, hoping to succeed Del. Steve Shannon, has a far tougher fight than appears on the surface--and Democrats ignore his race at their peril. This district was never comfortably Democratic, and if high-income Vienna and Oakton revert back to their Republican ways from earlier in the decade, there is an outside chance we will lose this seat.

40th District - Del. Tim Hugo (R)
Democrats couldn't even scratch up an opponent here--and Obama won this district by double digits! (5%) Why? In off-years, turnout in the blue precincts falls through the floor, and upper-income voters in Clifton and western Centreville dominate the electorate. As a more practical matter, Democrats find playing offense in the field more difficult than Republicans. Republicans are able to canvass hard Democratic areas that are zoned for townhouses and dense single-family development, but Democrats are unable to do the same in Republican areas restricted to 1 lot per 5 acres.

42nd District - Del. Dave Albo (R)
Democratic challenger Greg Werkheiser faces less of a problem here than other Democrats in the county, but there are sections in Fairfax Station that are high-income that voted McCain-Allen. Albo was going to win most of those areas anyway. Albo's weakness with regards to income lie in the northern part of the district, which he has historically done well in. They are less likely to respond to McDonnell's messaging than voters out west.

44th District - OPEN (D)
You see here why Republican Jay McConnville even has a prayer in a district that voted for Obama by double digits. Look at the upper-income precincts along the Potomac River--they might've put on a blue shirt in 2006 and 2008, but they bleed green and red (money and Republican).

67th District - Del. Chuck Caputo (D)
You see why Caputo, while winning, has never won comfortably. Precincts north of US 50 are higher-income and higher-turnout than the Democratic, but low-turnout precincts on the south side.

Special thanks to Not Larry Sabato, who got this train rolling in my head with "Hey, I've got a map idea for you"--a useful sentence if I ever heard one.

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You Ngo Girl!
Kenny -

This is your ex, Bear Trap here. My legs are like a Bear Trap. Remember?

I loved the analysis. Couple of comments:

1. The map makes the 42nd seem very friendly to the dems this time around. Surely it is, but the gigantic blue Gunston precinct (bottom right corner of the map) exaggerates this effect, because it's huge geographically, one of the least dense precincts in Fairfax County. In other words - it's a huge empty blob of blue on the map without any people living in it.

2. I like that you took a critical look at Democratic gains in Fairfax. While I believe that the Dems have made significant gains in Fairfax (in both registration, new transplants, and party switching), I think that the jury is still out on some parts of the county. You looked at a persuadable group (upper income voters) and a low turnout group (lower income Democrats).

Though I don't have any numbers to back me up, I'm convinced that most of the Democratic gains in Fairfax have been due to new middle class registrants moving into new "affordable"  housing developments, immigration, and bad GOP candidates, including two gay statewide candidates! We haven't "converted" as many Republicans or Republican leaning independents as we think...

Great analysis, and related all should read...
...Chap Peterson's blog post from last Friday on his Ox Road South blog about recent NoVA voting behavior.  Chap points out, piggybacking on Bear Trap's comment, that white voters in the county are 50-50, and it's the big influx of people of color (including Indian-Americans like myself, my having moved here from D.C. with my wife and small kids last year) who have made the county heavily Democratic.

And people of color as a whole don't have the same commitment to voting as white voters, which is why years like this have lower Democratic turnout.  This will change over the years, but it will take time.

34th....Comstock takes Margi to the wall.  Tax issues on the national level are just starting.   The debate will soon start about the $800 billion in federal tax cuts that will start to expire in 2010.

35th....same tax issues as above for Dems with a moderate Republican in Hyland.

40th...Unusual.  Kento info seems off on this one.  Obama did not win by double digits.  And, Hugo crushed his 2007 very, very well funded opponent (57.2% - 42%) in the worst year for the GOP.  
P.S.  Susan Conrad is still running which means Hugo will raise money non-stop and campaign non-stop.  (

42nd...Albo is the hardest working man in show business and Werk doesn't seem to have the same fire as 2005.   Werk is just hoping to bury Albo with money at the end...  We'll see.....

44th...McConnville ran a personally cash strapped Amundson out of the race.  Let's see what he can do with a caustic but, talented Surovell.

67th...Actually, since Margi works harder than Caputo, this is the most vulnerable Dem.  LeMunyon talks moderate and works very hard.  Caputo is highly in danger. the Marsden seat.   GOP turned Dem Marsden versus Dem turned GOP Bolonese.  Bolonese has the fire in the belly that Werk did in 2005.

Conrad isn't really "running", last I heard. She emptied out her campaign treasury, intending on dropping out, but then decided to stay on the ballot, and she intends to merely be a line on the ballot with no fundraising or actual campaign to speak of.

We have a seat that is effectively uncontested.

I live in Marsden's district, and I'll be waiting for this "sleeper" race to register anything more than a yawn. Bolognese is getting about as much traction around here as a tire made of banana peels.

[ Parent ]
I think this is very well done Kenton
But you are forgetting one key fact - something a lot of people on both sides this year feel like ommitting - this is a "State" or "Off" year.  It ain't 06, and it ain't 08, and that has several repercussions.

And in the context of this article, it happens to help Dems.

In the most "dangerous" (held by Dems) districts you listed...


08 - Obama by 7
06 - Webb by 14
05 - DEEDS BY 14


08 - Obama by 15
06 - Webb by 17
05 - DEEDS BY 16

Yes, I know the big difference, Deeds wasn't at the top of the ticket - but you must admit that one of the if not THE main reason Deeds lost in 05 was his rural vs. urban problem.  Well, while that cost him thousands of votes in precious, crucial Prince William and Loudoun counties, rich folks in McLean, Vienna, Great Falls, and Oakton didn't seem to have much of a problem, and picked Deeds by double-digits.

You clearly have correlation Kenton, but I think you need to go a tiny bit further to prove causality on the "Richest of the rich Fairfax voters don't like Dems who aren't like them (i.e. - taxing, like Obama in 08, or rural, like Deeds in 09)" theory.

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