Virginia Governor’s Race: Fairfax County Geopolitics

Earlier this month, I summarized the Virginia race from a geographic perspective. Since early July, the purported scandals surrounding current Governor Bob McDonnell have become more intense. This could benefit the McAuliffe campaign and jeopardize the Cuccinelli campaign, but both candidates will still need to prove themselves throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is especially true in Fairfax County.

Fairfax County: The Electoral Prize
Why is Fairfax County so important? It has by far the highest population (and votes) of any county or city in Virginia. Fairfax, with more than 1.1 million people (670,000 voters), contains about 14% of an estimated 8.1 million Virginians as of 2012. Fairfax is also a fundraising mecca for candidates, due to the high number of corporations and wealthy individuals in the county. The state’s second highest population center (a distant second) is the resort city of Virginia Beach, with a population of 447,000. Prince William and Loudoun counties in Northern Virginia, and Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, round out the top five most populated places in Virginia.

Five most populous cities and counties in Virginia
Five most populous cities and counties in Virginia


Fairfax County’s Changing Population Geography
The county is highly urbanized and diverse: 63% White (54% Non-Hispanic White); 17% Asian; 10% Black; and 15% Hispanic (may be of any race). Fairfax County was less urban and diverse in 1990 at 818,000 people—back then it was 81% White, 8% Asian, 8% Black, and 6% Hispanic. The rapid growth and urbanization are largely due to job growth in places like Tysons Corner, which employs some 105,000 people in technology industries and serves as the “downtown” for Fairfax County. Tysons Corner is the 12th largest employment center in the United States.


The growth in racial and ethnic diversity has coincided with Fairfax County going from a reliably Republican county to a mostly Democratic county. Today there are 9 Virginia Senate districts partly or totally within the county, and Democrats currently hold all 9 districts.  Of the 15 House of Delegates districts in the county, Democrats hold 10 and Republicans retain 5 (see map). Republicans hold districts that are mostly on the less urban periphery of Fairfax; but as urbanization and migration continue to these outer regions, some of these Republican delegates find themselves vulnerable. Republican incumbents in districts 34 and 86 are facing significant challenges from well-funded Democratic opponents.

House ofDel


Presidential Election Results: Going Blue
Is Fairfax a blue county? Can Democrats depend on a large number of votes?  Well, if presidential election trends are any indication, then the answer is YES! The graph below shows how Fairfax County voters went from being a red (Republican) county to a solid blue (Democratic) county.

 FairfaxPresVote 1988-2012

Note that in 1988, when George H.W. Bush ran against Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis, Fairfax was solidly Republican, and Mr. Bush won by some 75,000 votes. However, 12 years later his son George W. Bush received only 5,680 more votes than Democratic rival Al Gore. In his 2004 reelection bid, President Bush lost Fairfax County to Democrat John Kerry by more than 33,000 votes. Finally, in both 2008 and 2012 President Obama carried the county by about 109,000 votes over Republican rivals John McCain and Mitt Romney. It is evident that Fairfax can go blue in a big way.

Voting Trends for Governor and Other Statewide Offices
Finally, let us look at voting trends since 2005 in elections for Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and U.S. Senator. The graph below shows the election results for 9 races. In only one race did a Republican candidate prevail in getting more votes than a Democratic opponent—the 2009 Governor’s race where Bob McDonnell beat Creigh Deeds by 4,500 votes in the county.


The 2008 U.S. Senate contest between two former Virginia governors, Mark Warner (Democrat) and Jim Gilmore (Republican), is notable for a huge spike in voter turnout. Mr. Warner garnered some 188,000 more votes than Mr. Gilmore in Fairfax County. In the 2012 Senate election, former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine beat George Allen, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, by almost 95,000 votes.

Fairfax County and the 2013 Governor’s Race
The county will loom large for both the McAuliffe and Cuccinelli campaigns. As a state senator, Ken Cuccinelli represented parts of Fairfax County, so he would like to repeat Bob McDonnell’s 2009 success and win the county. However, Bob McDonnell earned more votes in the county by being competitive with moderate and independent voters in an election where there was a decline in turnout among minority voters, who are key to Democratic victories. Cuccinelli’s ideology and demeanor is considered more fiery than McDonnell’s, which will likely alienate moderate voters and push minority voters to the polls.

The Cuccinelli campaign strategy is focusing on pro-business policies in Fairfax, which should resonate with many. The campaign also pushes the personal attachment Ken Cuccinelli has to the county. “I was raised in Fairfax County and attended public schools,” states the Cuccinelli campaign website.

The McAuliffe campaign needs high voter turnout in the county, especially among minorities. His campaign states, “Terry McAuliffe is a businessman, entrepreneur, and dad who has lived in Fairfax County, Virginia for over 20 years.” Based on past voting trends, it looks like Terry McAuliffe should get the most votes in Fairfax County. His campaign should plan on winning by a large number of votes in Fairfax to offset votes in Virginia’s western conservative counties. We will see what the November election brings.

David B. Miller, Geography, NVCC-Alexandria