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

12 Responses to “This Post Took a Year to Write”

  1. finnegan says:

    re: This Post Took a Year to Write — Heh. Why do you think I’m bowing out? This sort of blogging is ridiculously time-consuming.

    Thanks for this analysis. I always enjoy hearing/reading your political analysis and predictions.

    As I commented on The Friendly City:

    I don’t think Kai’s campaign changed the local political game as much as it simply followed the guidelines of national and big city campaigns. It was a brand.

    Who knows? If other candidates (besides just Kai) had campaigned on Facebook and YouTube, and really reached out to the younger voters, it’s possible that the Dems might not have swept City Council.

    This win in Harrisonburg must be the icing on the cake compared to the Phillies’ performance in the World Series, eh Adam?

  2. Adam Sharp says:

    The Phillies’ win was an exorcism of childhood demons. I saw the same thing happen in 2004 when my roommate Jon watched his Red Sox win.

    Tuesday’s celebration in Chicago was tame compared to what would happen if the Cubs could finally make it to the World Series and win. Maybe the Cubs should hire Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe as general manager.

    Tuesday’s City Council wins were more of a professional milestone, an indication I might actually know what I’m talking about. In that last sense it’s probably the worst thing to ever happen to my ego.

  3. Renee says:

    Wow, neat stats! Thanks for the interesting article :)

  4. Renee says:

    P.S. I really liked the quote by Jeremy Aldrich and went to read his blog post, in which he makes some good points and says some nice things about hburgnews. Thanks, Jeremy!

  5. finnegan says:

    Within the city, the local Democratic Party candidates had several things going for them:

    1) Obama’s momentum, and the fact that he visited H’burg last week
    2) Camron’s well-organized operation for Obama, as well as Rasoul’s supporters in the city
    3) Record numbers of young voters (primarily at Stone Spring)
    4) The trendy “green” craze that is generally associated with Dems.
    5) The diverse ethnic makeup of the city. Anyone that’s been to the International Festival knows that the demographic is changing rapidly.

    The Republican candidates had several things working against them:

    1) The anti-Bush sentiment for change nation-wide
    2) Lackluster star power up-ticket. The average McCain supporters I met didn’t seem as enthusiastic for him as Obama’s supporters. Plus, Warner vs Gilmore?
    3) The (fair or unfair) notion that local Repubs are “pro-growth” while Dems are “smart growth”
    4) The anti-intellectual McCain campaign (Joe the Plumber, et al) didn’t play well in a college town with a diverse ethnic makeup
    5) The local McCain GOTV just wasn’t as well organized as Obama’s. Dems rented 15 or more vans to [literally] drive likely Dem voters to the polls. How many the the McCain camp rent?

    In this election, in this city, the Republicans were simply out-campaigned.

  6. Renee says:

    Good analysis. I agree with all of your points there. I might add that I think more young people are staying in Harrisonburg after graduating from HHS and/or JMU, so I would suspect the non-JMU voters were a younger crowd this year, too.

    Not to mention the plethora of voting women in our city – women voted strongly democrat in this election.

  7. Breslau says:

    Very compelling. Thanks for this.

  8. JGFitzgerald says:

    MSNBC reports that Obama would have won without the youth vote. Doesn’t say anything about Kai.

  9. David Miller says:

    Adam’s analysis is on point. Better organization, who knew that community organizing was powerful and not to be smirked at?

  10. JGFitzgerald says:

    Difference between a community organizer and a governor? The White House.

  11. David Miller says:

    As much as I don’t want to gloat, it is pleasurable. Truly though it points out the difference between rhetoric and results.

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