In Virginia, a mix of elation and exhaustion

 

Richmond, Virginia

The motorcades have made his daughter late for work and left him stuck on the highway for half an hour. The TV ads — well, don't get him started about the TV ads. Still, John Valentine brims with pride every time he sees his hometown skyline on the national news after another presidential candidate has come to town.

"It's always fun when you've been put on the map," said Valentine, who runs a small recording studio in Richmond. "It's like, wow — these guys are here three times a week! It's been tiring seeing all the commercials. But it's cool."

"These guys," of course, are President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, the candidates who have courted Virginia this year with an intensity never before seen in the Old Dominion.

No matter who wins here on Tuesday, the heavy focus on Virginia has left a mark on the state and those who live in it. Voters say they feel a closer connection to the candidates and the campaign. The stature of Virginia politicians has gotten a boost. A state filled with history got a little more when Romney announced in Norfolk that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would be his running mate. And then there's the money — tens of millions poured into TV ads, radio spots, rallies, mailings, campaign offices and every other little thing that comes with a modern presidential campaign.

"It may be annoying at times, like when the traffic is stopped on I-81 because 15,000 people are leaving an event in Fishersville," said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, R, who plans to run for governor next year and has campaigned with Romney and Ryan. "But before this, we watched it all on the news, and we read about it on the Internet and in newspapers, and it was happening somewhere else. Well, now it's happening right here, and that has a vibrancy to it. It's energizing."

Virginia had a touch of swing to it in 2008, when Obama spotted an opportunity and set up a campaign apparatus that helped turn the state blue for the first time in 40 years. But attention turned to the state late and the battle, such as it was, was one-sided.

Not so this year, when Virginia is one of the big three — right up there with Florida and Ohio as the most fought over and valuable commodities on Election Day. The outcome is so uncertain that the two candidates, their spouses and running mates have logged more than 90 appearances in Virginia in 2012 — nearly a dozen of those since Friday.

Virginians are not used to this sort of thing. Some they seem to like, some not so much. They are weary of the traffic jams, one thing the state does not need to import. And they are tired of the ads and the phone calls and the knocks on their doors.

Jordan and Morgan Mauck, 19-year-old twins and sophomores at Randolph-Macon College, are Republicans but have been getting phone calls and e-mails from the Obama campaign — a reflection, possibly, of their age and the fact that they are college students, a heavily targeted group for Obama.

They're not happy that the Democrats have their e-mail addresses, and they don't know how they got them, "but I'd sure like to know," Morgan Mauck said. "Never have I ever led anyone to believe that I support Obama."

Dixie Mauck, the twins' mother, said the family receives many phone calls from both sides at home, too. "It's pretty even," she said. "We're one of the stupid people who haven't canceled their home phone line yet."

But Virginians like seeing the candidates on the local news or, better yet, meeting them in person. They like it when issues such as military spending or the federal workforce gain national attention. They see civic engagement on the rise.

"It does go on and on," said Richard Russey, 60, of Alexandria, who volunteers a few hours a few hours a week for the Obama campaign and was one of 24,000 at the president's rally in Prince William County late Saturday. "But what's exciting about being in a state that makes a difference is putting as many hours as I can to make sure it goes in the direction that I want it to. That's actually possible."

Virginia is bested only by Florida and Ohio in money spent, visits paid, importance awarded: a populous, diverse, mercurial bellwether that's part of every analysis of how Romney or Obama will win on Tuesday.

The road from no-doubt-about-it Republican to tossup began a decade ago, when Virginia was growing at breakneck speed. Booming federal contractors attracted more independent-minded and moderate voters to the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia. The Hispanic population grew. The long-dominant conservatism of rural Virginia receded in influence, and Democrats began winning statewide elections.

Virginia first appeared in presidential sight lines in 2004, when the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, Mass., made an early play in the Old Dominion by installing a small staff. But it became clear as the year went on that Virginia was still out of reach, and Kerry eventually diverted the staff elsewhere. Kerry lost the state by eight points.

Scott Surovell, a Democratic state lawmaker from Fairfax County, remembers volunteering for Kerry eight years ago, when no field staff, no money, not even yard signs were forthcoming from the national campaign. "I had to basically invent a presidential campaign in my neighborhood," he said.

Virginia's new status can be measured in many ways: how many times the Secret Service has asked Fairfax police to provide security at campaign events (16); the number of pages the Roanoke Times added to its print edition this week to accommodate campaign-related letters (three); in the number of Obama and Romney yard signs crammed into the medians along busy highways everywhere (thousands and thousands.)

For Virginia politicians, nothing beats being from a swing state. Gov. Robert McDonnell, R, has risen to prominence as a top Romney surrogate (and once-leading contender for the vice-presidential spot) in large part because of where he's from.

The money is another measure. According to data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG, the two presidential campaigns and their allies have spent nearly $131 million on television advertising in Virginia. That doesn't include the tens of millions more spent on dozens of rallies that involve expensive staging equipment, security, even catering and hotel rooms for campaign staffs. It also doesn't include the hundreds of campaign workers on the candidates' payrolls; Obama opened more than 60 offices across the commonwealth.

Although much of that money is going straight into the coffers of television stations, there is probably an effect of the other expenditures, particularly at a time when Virginia's roughly $450 billion economy remains fragile, said Stephen Fuller, an economist with George Mason University.

"It's fairly narrow, and if this were a really booming economy, you wouldn't care," Fuller said. "But when you're still trying to gain traction and the recovery has lost steam around the nation, there is a benefit."

Still, even the most enthusiastic politicos — or economic boosters — appear to have had their fill of the ads. To say onslaught is an understatement; according to CMAG, the campaigns and their allies have aired 186,555 TV spots in Virginia television markets this election season.

Here's an even more dramatic illustration, compiled by Lauren Rubenstein of the Wesleyan Media Project: In the first three weeks of October 2004, the presidential campaigns and their allies aired seven ads in the Washington television market. That's a mere 7,739 fewer ads than over the same period this year.

At the Roanoke Times, publisher Debbie Meade has been delighted at the increase in volume of letters, leading the newspaper not only to expand the printed letters section but to publish dozens more online.

"The election is at the top of people's minds," Meade said. "There's hardly anyplace you can go in town where people don't want to talk about it, speculate about it. It's wonderful for the media to have people so engaged, regardless of how they vote."

Don't wax too idealistic, however, about the increase in civic engagement. Letters on the Times's Web page over the weekend included one calling for a shorter election season, another lamenting the nasty TV ads and another suggesting holding presidential contests only every eight years.

Virginians, in other words, are ready for it to be over.

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