Appalachia and Tidewater

Anyone familiar with the regional differences in Virginia wasn’t terribly surprised to see Terry McAuliffe romping in NoVa and Hampton Roads on Tuesday night while Ken Cucinelli rolled up big margins in Central Virginia, SW Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley. It’s pretty much the same splits that showed up eight years ago when Tim Kaine beat Jerry (No Relation) Kilgore, though Cooch did a bit better in the NoVa exurbs and Richmond suburbs than did Kilgore. In retrospect, it’s all the more remarkable that Mark Warner actually carried SW Virginia when he won his improbable gubernatorial victory in 2001.

But in a web exclusive today at Ten Miles Square, American Nations author Colin Woodward notes that the red/blue division in Virginia (as in other southern states with different upland and lowland settlement patterns during and immediately after the colonial period) closely tracks the divisions between the Greater Appalachian and Tidewater cultural regions he’s discussed extensively at WaMo and elsewhere. Indeed, failure to account for such regional tensions, he says, may be the real reason the polls were a bit off:

As in the Alabama and Mississippi GOP presidential primaries last year, pollsters failed to weight their samples to ensure they properly represented not just the racial, gender, and economic profile of the electorate, but the state’s two, centuries-old, rival regional cultures. I’m not talking about “NoVa” versus the Old Dominion, but something much older than suburban Washington: the massive schism between the state’s Tidewater and Greater Appalachian sections, one that has created tensions since the days of the House of Burgesses and, certainly, the secession of West Virginia….

Across our country, the Tea Party has its greatest support in Greater Appalachia, home to a plurality of the House “shutdown caucus” and a culture that prizes personal sovereignty and individual freedom above all. It’s failed to capture hearts and minds in regions with a strong communitarian tradition such as Yankeedom, or even in the fast-changing Tidewater, whose aristocratic founders had a strong sense noblesse oblige lacking among the founding (West Indies) planters of the Deep South.

I asked one of my research collaborators – Miami University of Ohio geography masters student Nicollette Staton – to run the results of Tuesday’s election through the American Nations model. The regional differences were stark:

McAuliffe won Virginia’s Tidewater by 11 points, 52 to 41.

Cuccinelli won Greater Appalachia by an even wider margin, 57 to 36….

McAuliffe’s overall margin of victory is owed entirely to the relative size of Tidewater’s electorate (over 1.6 million cast ballots in Tidewater on Tuesday, under 600,000 in Appalachia.) Indeed, if West Virginia hadn’t seceded from the rest of the Old Dominion during the Civil War, McAuliffe would almost certainly have been routed.

I lived for a while in rural Central Virginia right on the borderline between the Tidewater and Greater Appalachian cultural spheres, and can attest to the continuing power of the two traditions. But I’d add a proviso to Woodward’s demonstration: the Tidewater region (as defined by Woodward; locally, the term usually just applies to the coastal area) is home to most of Virginia’s minority voters. Greater Appalachia, for all sorts of obvious reasons, is mostly white. While white voters in the two areas do tend to split in Democratic and Republican primaries (viz. the white-vote patterns in the Obama/Clinton nomination fight of 2008), the main splits in general elections are arguably more a matter of race and age than of region. At some point I may make a stab at figuring out if white Virginia voters were more or less likely to vote for Cooch in Newport News than in Lexington (it’s very likely white NoVa voters, particularly in close-in suburbs of DC, were more likely to vote Democratic than those elsewhere in the state). But Woodward is right: these are some ancient traditions we are dealing with here, that have remarkable staying power.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.