The Numbers Game
How does a Republican candidate win in a Democratic district? John McCain won approximately 38% of the vote in the 93rd district back in 2008. Jim Gilmore only managed 28% in the same year. George Allen captured approximately 45% of the vote in 2006. Given that all of the percentages are below the statewide average, one could hardly call the 93rd a Republican friendly district. Of the 13 precincts in the 93rd, what, if any, of the precincts are favorable to Republicans? Looking back at past elections, George Allen narrowly won Palmer, narrowly lost Kiln Creek, and convincingly won both Watkins and Roberts B. John McCain faired worse, only managing to win Watkins and Roberts B and not really in any danger of winning any others. The district encompasses the two easternmost precincts of James City County and the northeast section of Newport News with the exception of the Saunders precinct, which is in the 96th. For the record, the precincts in the district are: Roberts A & B in James City County, and Epes, McIntosh, Reservoir, Richneck, a portion of Lee Hall, Windsor, Greenwood, Palmer, Kiln Creek, Deer Park, and Watkins in Newport News. Of these, Delegate Hamilton won Roberts B, and Watkins, narrowly winning Deer Park, and a close loss in Roberts A. Given that the district trends Democratic, one might wonder how Delegate Hamilton was able to gain and hold onto power for so long.
The answer to this question has several parts. First, one should recognize that incumbents have an inherent advantage over their opponents. They have higher name recognition and presumably more accomplishments. I would also argue that from what I saw, Delegate Phil Hamilton maintained a favorable rapport with the people of the 93rd, taking time to listen to his constituents and alerting them to his progress in Richmond. The second is that the location of the 93rd has shifted over the years. Although I cannot find data for how the 93rd looked back in 1988 when he was first elected, comparing it to the district in the 1990s, one can clearly see a shift. Delegate Hamilton often referred to the 93rd as a “donor district”, meaning that the more Republican or conservative areas of this district had been given to other districts, presumably in the hopes of electing more Republican/conservative legislators. Before the 2000 redistricting, the 93rd was further east. It contained none of James City County and the following precincts in Newport News: McIntosh, Reservoir, Richneck, Deer Park, Nelson, Palmer, Saunders, a small bit of Warwick, Beaconsdale, and South Morrison. I should mention that the precinct known as Beaconsdale no longer exists. According to the Newport News Board of Elections, the polling place was not handicap accessible, so it was absorbed into the Deer Park precinct. What does all this mean, you ask? Looking back at both the Allen and McCain elections, let’s assume the 93rd is in this old shape (including all of Warwick, no absentee ballots, and no write ins). Do these candidates fair any better? John McCain reaches 40%, Jim Gilmore improves to 29% and George Allen reaches 47%. Although none win this old district, they do capture a higher percentage.
Let’s next consider the Governor’s race in the 93rd. While the delegate’s race was 54% in favor of Robin Abbott, McDonnell won about 52-53% in that same district depending on the source. He handily wins the precincts of Palmer, Kiln Creek, Deer Park, Watkins, Roberts A and B, narrowly wins Richneck, and barely loses Windsor. Now why did he do better than Phil Hamilton? Was he better known? Did he run a better campaign? Was his opponent easier to beat? (Answer: yes!) Or was it that he wasn’t tarred by a scandal? For comparison’s sake let’s run McDonnell in this old 93rd. Does he similarly get a one to two point bump in the polls as the other candidates did? Indeed the trend holds true with McDonnell gathering about 54% in this relic district. However, applying these numbers to Phil Hamilton does not result in victory. While it raises his percentage from 45.6 to around 47.6%, and dropping his opponent likewise, Robin Abbott would still win with a slim 51.94%.
So what should we take home from the numbers game? Although the 93rd has undeniably gotten worse for Republicans since redistricting, it is possible, although difficult, for Republicans to win here. In a great Republican year like 2009, Bolling ran about even and Cuccinelli won 51%. The statistics clearly prove that if Delegate Hamilton was able to run alongside Bob McDonnell (or Cuccinelli, and maybe even Bolling) and capture all of the same voters, he would be returning to the House of Delegates next year. Unfortunately ODU and the resulting aftermath dashed any hopes for this scenario.