This Post Took a Year to Write

Adam Sharp -- November 6th, 2008

Brent asked that I add what little I know to the analysis of Tuesday’s election results in Harrisonburg.

A little less than a year ago I threw some numbers on a spreadsheet and ate lunch with 2 gentlemen who will take office January 1 as newly-elected members of City Council. (I want to thank Dr. Smilowitz who, while I was flunking for John Kerry instead of attending Intro to PR, did impress upon me the necessity of always getting the data and the numbers before making a proposal. And the importance of having good food at fundraisers.)

The numbers were election results in Harrisonburg dating back to May 2004, and the spreadsheets showed a steady movement toward Democrats in the city. Using the 2006 U.S. Senate election, I ranked each precinct according to ideology (Keister is the most conservative, Spotswood was the most liberal, and Waterman has socially conservative Democratic voters).

I predicted total voter registration would be 17,739 in November 2008. I was only off by 3,000 (but in my defense I hadn’t planned on Mr. Gorguinpour and the Obama campaign). I predicted voter turnout of 70% (12,418 voters), and it was 71% (14,666 voters).

From 2004-2008, Harrisonburg gained 4,024 voters. That’s a misleading statement, because 4,221 voters were added to the rolls since November 2007. That’s 20% of current registration and an increase of 25% in a single year – unheard of.

From 2004-2008, the Democratic nominee for president gained 3,711 votes. Subtracting the 120 who voted for Bush but didn’t vote for McCain, one can reasonably make the argument that 3,591 of 4,024 new voters cast ballots for Obama, or 89.2% – incredible.

A year ago I said Democratic candidates could win in Harrisonburg in a November election. As Brent showed, that may have occurred in the City Council race even without the surge in registrations and the youth vote in Stone Spring. The huge number of new voters simply added to the margin.

That last bit of information leads into my 3 “big ideas” about Tuesday’s results in Harrisonburg:

1) Harrisonburg is not a blue city, but it leans slightly Democratic. Never again (i.e., not for 16 years) will there be a similar surge of young people voting Democratic (see 1992, 1976, 1960) for a young presidential candidate promising change.

Without the 2,000+ registered voters I believe are JMU students (and not just young residents of Harrisonburg) who will only vote in this year’s presidential election, elections in Harrisonburg will remain very close for the next few years. The retirement homes in the city largely balance the size of the growing young professional community, which means winning candidates will have to build demographic, not ideological, coalitions (see Jeff Shafer’s win Tuesday).

Jeremy Aldrich says it well:

No longer can a candidate win without actively campaigning, simply based on their network of friends and associates in the city. No longer can you ignore minorities and young people in your efforts. And no longer can you get away with avoiding public debates and putting up, at least, an informational website.

2) Irony #1 – Candidates who campaigned against the city’s lenient attitude toward developers most likely won a majority of the votes from Harrisonburg’s apartment complexes and townhouse developments. Republicans who do not support curbs on development (as opposed to curbs in developments) are writing their political obituary.

3) Irony #2 – Incumbents who voted to move municipal elections to November lost. Any Republicans fuming about JMU students voting for local offices should focus their anger on the 3 Republicans and 2 conservative independents who voted in 2006 to move elections to November instead of holding local elections the week after students graduate and leave.

But hey, they saved taxpayers $4,000. I’m sure that will make local Republican leaders proud as they watch the first Democratic-controlled City Council in a generation sworn in January 1.

Adam’s hobby is putting numbers on spreadsheets and doing other political things for Democratic and progressive candidates in the Shenandoah Valley. He uses Twitter because cool kids like finnegan did it first. You can follow Adam’s updates at

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