Throughout the Bush years, Orange County, FL, Franklin County, OH, and Bucks County, PA ascended to national preeminence as the closest counties in the closest states in the 2000 election. In 2008, the diverse and well-educated new coalition counties, like Arapahoe, CO, Fairfax, VA, Wake, NC stole the show. In 2012, Obama could easily win every county listed above and lose the election.
As the suburbs diversify and Republicans compensate with additional inroads into the countryside, the old swing counties of the Bush years have largely moved into the Democratic column. In some states, it’s conceivable that a Romney victory wouldn’t even involve flipping a single large county, or maybe not even one county at all. Many of the counties deemed as the best bell-weathers for 2012, like Hillsborough, FL, Hamilton, OH, Henrico, VA, or Washoe, NV, could conceivably vote the opposite direction of their state in a relatively close election.
In an election decided by turnout and margins, the following underrated counties deserve their time in the sun:
Nestled in the southwestern corner of Virginia, Buchanan County is a traditionally Democratic coal county that voted for Democrats in all but one election since Roosevelt won the presidency. But Obama wasn’t exactly a fit for Buchanan County. Hillary won 89 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and McCain became the first candidate to carry the state since Nixon in 1972. McCain won the state by 5 points, even though Kerry won by 8, Gore by 19, and Clinton by 36. Much of McCain’s improvement wasn’t due to a strong GOP turnout, but a massive decline in Democratic turnout. 1,100 of Buchanan County’s 9,800 voters from 2004 dropped out of the electorate in 2008.
To counter large Democratic margins in northern Virginia, Romney is going to need to do even better than McCain did four years ago across western and central Virginia. His best opportunity is in coal counties like Buchanan, and it will might require convincing Kerry supporters who stayed at home in ’08 to turnout on his behalf. If he can do so, it won’t just help Romney in Virginia, but also in western Pennsylvania and southeast Ohio.
Obama excelled among moderate, independent voters across Midwestern farmlands stretching from the western base of the Appalachian foothills to the high plains of the Dakotas and Nebraska. That includes northwestern Ohio, and especially Williams County, where Obama lost by just 9 points compared to Kerry’s 30-point defeat in 2008—the best Democratic performance since 1964. Obama campaign’s efforts in Indiana helped Obama in northwestern Ohio, but the auto-bailout could easily resonate here and Obama’s ability to perform far above Kerry levels could easily determine a close contest.
Some of Obama’s biggest gains came among the most affluent and well-educated voters and Pennsylvania’s Chester County was no exception. With a median income north of $80,000 and 12 percent of households making $200,000 per year, Chester County is the most affluent county in Pennsylvania and one of the most affluent in any battleground state. In 2012, Obama won 54 percent of the vote in Chester County, the first time the county had voted for a Democrat since 1964.
Although Romney is all but assured to make gains in Chester, the amount that Romney will gain affluent suburbs is harder to say. Most polls show Obama doing better among college educated whites and rich voters than Kerry, and Obama’s competitiveness in Virginia and Colorado suggests that Obama is doing better than Kerry among these voters, as well. But the amount that Obama holds onto rich voters could be decisive in Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, where Romney is expected to make big gains in the western part of the state.
Mahoning and Trumbull, Ohio
Obama fared poorly in the white working class industrial hubs of Youngstown and Warren in 2008. The steel industry once dominated the Mahoning Valley, but the area never fully recovered from the steel industry’s collapse and a large General Motors plant remains as the largest manufacturing employer in the region.
Although both Mahoning and Trumbull Counties are Democratic strongholds, Obama barely improved over Kerry’s performance in Mahoning County, while McCain actually did better than Bush in Trumbull County. But the auto-bailout saved a prominent manufacturing plant and the shale gas boom has helped the local economy, yielding new pipelines and manufacturing plants. While Obama seems likely to perform worse in most areas than he did in 2008, the Mahoning Valley seems like a possible exception. Obama’s weak ’08 performance suggests he has upside potential among Clinton voters or populist Bush/McCain supporters, and the attacks on Romney’s time at Bain Capital are sure to resonate in a region hit hard by globalization.
Larimer and Weld, Colorado
The two largest suburban counties outside of Denver steal the attention in Colorado, and understandably so. But although Jefferson Counties is just as important as the hype suggests, I’d put both Larimer County and its neighbor Weld County above Arapahoe County.
Larimer and Weld Counties are home to Denver’s northern exurbs, including the modest population centers of Ft. Collins, Loveland, and Greeley. Larimer County is as well educated as the Denver suburbs and typically votes alongside them, but it’s not nearly as diverse as Arapahoe and it’s not as wealthy Jefferson or Arapahoe, either. Weld County is more conservative than any of the Denver suburbs, but it’s a rapidly growing county with a burgeoning Hispanic population. The growing diversity of Arapahoe County might make it difficult for Romney to prevail, and he’ll need to make up for it elsewhere, probably in the Denver exurbs.