In Northern Virginia, Class and Race Dominate Election Talk

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For skeptical voters in the battleground state of Virginia, Mitt Romney’s recorded remarks at a Florida fundraiser last week were just the latest in a line of revelations that are stoking doubts about the Republican nominee.

“I’m voting for Obama because I can’t stand Romney,” said Jeff Foster, a veteran and a Democrat, as he waited for commuter train into Washington from Woodbridge, Virginia. “The elevators for his car, the dressage horse, just the look. He’s a guy who doesn’t understand what it’s like.”

Foster was among the voters who gave Obama a healthy sixteen-point margin in Prince William County. Like neighboring Loudoun County, this is considered one of the key battlegrounds in northern Virginia that could tip the electoral balance in this southern state.

In Prince William County, the median income is higher than the statewide average and unemployment is lower, and every voter I met said that the economy was their top concern. But four years after Obama won here, their descriptions of the contest suggest electoral alignments – and social values – in flux.

“I’m struggling with who can best lead us the next four years,” Democrat Preston Barber said on his way into work as a program manager for the Federal Aviation Administration. “Ten paces from the booth, I would probably flip a coin at this point,” he said, then paused. “But I’d probably go with Obama today.”

Barber’s reluctant to vote Democratic again because he’s been disappointed with Obama’s leadership on jobs and growth. “I think he made health care a bigger priority than the economy, and I think that was a mistake.”

Mitt Romney’s positions on women’s issues – and his evasive positions on the budget – are keeping Barber in the Democratic column for now. “I struggle with where he is on social issues,” Barber said of Romney “And he doesn’t really have what I’d call a clear policy on how he’s going to make the economy better other than telling us that he will.”

Polls suggest Barber is not alone in his assessment. Obama’s narrow edge among likely voters in Virginia is widening. From Prince William’s townhouse developments to its old town squares, it was the Republican side that appeared to be losing supporters. No voters told me they were leaning towards Romney after voting for Obama, but I met several who said they were leaning towards Obama after voting for McCain four years ago. 

Their reasons varied, and they were private about it – often refusing to talk on tape. 

“There’s no way the Republican Party can beat Obama now,” said a Republican auto parts manager who refused to have his name used. After voting Republican for forty years, he said he’s leaning towards Obama over Romney. “He keeps shooting himself in the foot with his mouth.” 

And at a gun store in Manassas, Mike Adams, a young clerk who voted Republican four years ago, said he simply feels more comfortable with Obama after his four years in office.   

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Adams said.

But Romney still has his partisans.

“We have both people in here. We have black and white,” beautician Sue Angles said when I asked her about the political chatter in the salon, which sits in a strip mall called the Reb Yank Center. “We get both sides – the black view and the white view.”

Economic and racial divisions are nothing new in this Virginia community. Banners noting the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War line the main street in the county seat of Manassas. Just a few paces away is the the Bull Run battlefield.  

This county is about half white, with the other half split between black, Hispanic and Asian residents. But Angles said when it comes to the presidential race, the divide is more partisan than racial. “There’s a lot of white women that like President Obama,” she told me. “A lot of is divided between the Democrat and the Republican. Straight down.”

But come November, Angles is planning on voting Republican, like she does most years. “I like Romney. I think he sounds fair to me,” she said.

She’s heard the criticisms of him, but she thinks he’s still the better candidate to lead the economy. “He does stick his foot in his mouth every now and then, but I think what he says is true,” she said. “I mean, he's coming a long way with what he’s done, so it couldn’t hurt. President Obama hasn’t really pulled us out of anything. So why not give somebody else a shot?” she said.

But a few seats down, a beautician named Anne, who did not want to give her last name, disagreed. She said Romney’s wealth, and privileged background, make her skeptical.

“If you’re trying to prove yourself, and obstacles are always bouncing you back, you work harder,” she said. “Where the one that gets out here, takes it for granted, has the money – everybody acknowledges them because they’ve already been established. The one that doesn’t has more power because he has more dedication.”

And by obstacles, she told me, she meant Obama’s race. Four years ago, she told me she didn’t vote because she didn’t think Obama was ready to be president. Since then, she said her views changed after working in a salon alongside black coworkers for the first time.

“I’ve never been with them, side by side, in their conversation. And I know where their strength is,” she said. The experience has made her want to vote for Obama this time around. “I think the person that can run the country is the person that’s had to prove himself for 200 years, against all odds. So he has built his muscles. You see, he’s just not out there pumping today and trying to get in shape. He has been pumping his muscles.”

Over breakfast at a Manassas diner, African American voter Genae Cullen described a different political conversion. Hers came with marrying her husband, a white retired police officer.

“I used to be a Democrat and he told me the difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” Cullen said. “I’m not like, oh, help everybody, that doesn’t want to work. I don’t believe in that. I think you should work, and if you can’t work, try to find work. Our taxes shouldn’t have to pay you to sit home.”

She’s planning to vote for Romney in November, but she doesn’t think he’ll be able to beat Obama. “Now that he’s there, I think he’s going to get a second term because he’s black. And there’s people who haven’t voted in years, and they see a black president, now they’re going to register to vote,” Cullen said. “They don’t care what the issues are. They’re just going to vote.”