Why Some States Are Purple

It is a good thing for democracy that more states are in play this year. Too often, the debates, the television ads, the Get-Out-The-Vote organizations, ignore large parts of the country because they are considered indelibly red or blue. A Republican could, in theory, try to contest Rhode Island or a Democrat contest South Carolina, but it would be a waste of resources. This year, the larger pool of states up for grabs means that more people will be exposed to the political process and, hopefully, will focus on the issues more closely. But, this larger electoral pie begs the question: Why are some states purple?

The most common reason for going purple is a change in demographics. In Virginia, over the past few years, the suburban communities outside of Washington have been growing like wild goldenrod. Many of the new residents are more affluent and socially liberal than the farming communities they are displacing. There is also a large contingent of Latinos in the northern Virginia electorate. The principle demographic change this year has been the increase in voter registration numbers in these heavily Democratic counties in the north and in the heavily African-American counties south of Richmond.


These demographic changes can be accentuated by finding the right, purplish, political leadership at the state level. In Virginia, the current Governor is a centrist Catholic, Tim Kaine, whose ambivalence on issues like the legality of abortion and enforcement of the death penalty could not be cast as weakness by his political opponents because of Kaine’s ability to tie that ambivalence to the admittedly complicated task of intermingling one’s Catholic beliefs with practical political decision-making. For example, on the death penalty, Kaine has said he opposes it and wants the state to oppose it, but that it is unlikely to do so and that he would fulfill his oath of office to enforce the laws and order executions. His predecessor, Mark Warner, shed the liberal elite label in part by buying a NASCAR team and campaigning heavily in the state’s rural areas as a non-ideological guy who could fix the fiscal mess the GOP had created. (Sound familiar?) Warner is facing his predecessor, Republican Jim Gilmore, in Virginia’s U.S. Senate race and Warner is leading in the polls by almost twenty-five points.

Virginia, however, has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential contest since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. Still, the combination of changing demographics, respected local Democratic office holders, and a spike in voter registration among African-Americans and young people, all have made Obama think he can win it. The most recent polls show McCain holding a slight lead of two or three points in the Old Dominion. Conversely, in Georgia, the Obama campaign has pulled its advertising buys in that state after they did not meet their voter registration goals and McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin solidified the GOP brand for Christian conservatives.

Michigan is a reliably Democratic state with a frighteningly unpopular Democratic governor. The Detroit area has a long history of racial tension dating back to the 1968 riots: It remains one of the most segregated cities in America. The Southwestern part of the state is home to many Christian conservatives, such as the Seventh Day Adventist community built up around their flagship Andrews University and an array of denominational organizations, such as publishing houses, that surround it. Macomb County outside Detroit is the home of the original "Reagan Democrats," lifelong Democrats who nonetheless voted for Reagan in 1980. Still, there have been no huge demographic change to alter the political landscape, except for the wild card issue of Obama’s race.

Obama did not compete in the Democratic primary here because the state party moved its primary date forward, breaking the rules of the Democratic National Committee. McCain lost the GOP primary here to Mitt Romney, whose father had been a governor here, by nine points. In addition to the unpopularity of the state’s Democratic governor, the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, just resigned his office as part of a plea bargain that has him headed to jail.

Colorado looks more like Virginia than Michigan. Population growth in liberal parts of the state combined with a moderate Democrat in the governorship. In addition, the state has a popular first-term Democratic Latino Senator, Ken Salazar. The Democrats decided to hold their convention in Denver in part to highlight the changing politics of the state. Most polls have Obama leading by a small margin.

Virginia, Michigan and Colorado could join such perennial toss-ups as Ohio and Florida as three of the most hotly contested purple states in the nation. Other states that the Obama campaign thought might be in play – Georgia, Montana, North Dakota – have all been moving slowly but steadily back into the GOP fold. The McCain would love to make a play at New Jersey, but advertising in the New York media market is cost-prohibitive. Barring a major development, or major mistake, in the race, 2008 will have more purple states in play than 2004, and that is fundamentally a good thing for a democracy.

Michael Sean Winters



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