Ralph Northam
Voters in Virginia elected Democrat Ralph Northam governor over Republican rival Ed Gillespie. Credit: Virginia Sea Grant\Flickr

If you take a look at the black population of Virginia by county and overlay that with a map of the election results of the gubernatorial primary between Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, you’ll be able to see the correlation quite clearly. It’s particularly noticeable in the southern and western parts of the state where the demographics are less complicated and the culture is more classically Virginia than in the D.C. suburbs. Here are the ten county groups with the heaviest black populations by percentage. Overall, Northam won 56 percent to 44 percent for Perriello.

Petersburg city: percentage black= 77.8, Northam 73 Perriello 28
Emporia city: percentage black= 63.6, Northam 66 Perriello 34
Greensville: percentage black= 59.2, Northam 72 Perriello 28
Sussex: percentage black= 57.8, Northam 72 Perriello 28
Franklin city: percentage black= 56.4, Northam 72 Perriello 28
Brunswick: percentage black= 56.1, Northam 57 Perriello 43
Portsmouth city: percentage black= 53.5, Northam 76 Perriello 24
Richmond city: percentage black= 50.1, Northam 55 Perriello 45
Hampton City: percentage black= 49.7, Northam 72 Perriello 28
Danville city: percentage black= 49.3, Perriello 88 Northam 12

You can see that Northam outperformed his statewide average in eight out of the ten, the exceptions being in Richmond where he basically matched his average and in Danville which is a major outlier that I’d love to understand.

Here are the ten county groups with the smallest black populations by percentage.

Craig: percentage black= 0.2, Perriello 71 Northam 29
Dickenson: percentage black= 0.4, Northam 61 Perriello 39
Highland: percentage black= 0.6, Perriello 62 Northam 38
Scott: percentage black= 0.8, Perriello 51 Northam 49
Carroll: percentage black= 0.8, Perriello 58 Northam 42
Russell: percentage black= 1.0, Northam 65 Perriello 35
Washington: percentage black= 1.5, Perriello 58 Northam 42
Giles: percentage black= 1.6, Perriello 72 Northam 28
Floyd: percentage black= 1.9, Perriello 74 Northam 26
Rockingham: percentage black= 2.0, Perriello 59 Northam 41

Here you can see that Perriello also outperformed his statewide average in eight out of ten, and by quite a lot.

I suppose there are several ways to interpret these results. One obvious way is to theorize that black voters in Virginia were heavily influenced by the fact that Northam enjoyed virtually unanimous support from elected Democrats in the state.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who beat Perriello for the Democratic nomination by 12 percentage points, had the backing of nearly every Virginia Democrat elected to state and federal office — the result of years of cultivating relationships…

…Democratic primary voters also seemed disinclined to rebel against the state party establishment. Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner are beloved by Virginia Democrats. And all three backed Northam.

“The real story, at least on the Democratic side . . . is people are generally happy with their leadership,” said David Turner, Northam’s spokesman.

Perriello’s campaign found it an enormous challenge. “It’s hard to break through against an entire unified state Democratic Party operation, and we knew that from the beginning,” [Ian] Sams said.

Overall, the election was decided in the northern suburbs where Northam vacuumed up an impressive lead, and he was assisted in this by his financial advantage. The northern suburbs are also the region where the endorsement of the Washington Post—owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—probably helped Northam the most against his anti-monopoly opponent.

Perriello’s internal polling showed him plunging 12 points in the final week of the campaign, mostly in vote-rich Northern Virginia, after Northam won the endorsement of The Washington Post editorial board and outspent Perriello on advertising by 2 to 1, according to Ian Sams, Perriello’s spokesman.

Because Perriello was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and several progressive groups, there’s a narrative that his loss proves that progressives’ “bark is worse than their bite.”

Personally, I don’t think this race was a very good laboratory for making that kind of assessment. Perriello wasn’t fighting on an even enough playing field. Northam’s money advantage was probably surmountable, but Northam’s institutional support was overwhelming. He was able to hold enough white liberals in his camp to blunt what should have been Perriello’s natural base of support. And Northam quite obviously did extremely well with the black community.

If this had been a more even fight, I might be comfortable saying that it provided confirmation of what we saw in the Democratic primaries between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It would be further proof that white progressives have not figured out how to appeal to black voters, without whom they cannot prevail.

I don’t feel comfortable saying that in this case for two reasons. The first is that Perriello isn’t a carbon copy of Bernie Sanders. He’s actually more in the mold of Elizabeth Warren, although (like Sanders) he lost some progressive support over his record on guns and (unlike Sanders) his support of the Stupak Amendment to the Affordable Care Act.

The second reason is a little complicated because Sanders and Perriello both started late and both faced nearly universal opposition from the party establishment which had lined up early for their opponents. This provides a lesson about the importance of getting started early and finding powerful allies within the party, but it tells us very little about whether a progressive can accomplish this if they go about it the right way. In other words, it’s hard to tell if there are substantive policy and messaging problems that are dividing white progressives from black voters or if their weakness in these two contests is better explained by a failure to make inroads within the party’s power structure in general. Another factor that makes this hard to gauge is that a lot of people will tell you that Sanders and many of his supporters were tone-deaf on issues of concern to the black community, but I doubt you’ll hear people say the same about Perriello.

I wish we could draw cleaner conclusions from the result in Virginia because Perriello road-tested the strategy a laid out in my magazine piece How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values and he had success in the very areas that I identified as a priority for Democrats if they want to make a political comeback in this country. I’d love to see an experiment where we could compare Perriello’s and Northam’s strategies for beating Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee, in November. That could tell us if a liberal can use an anti-monopoly, anti-consolidation message to do better in rural areas without compromising on liberal values and still motivate the base and clean up in blue strongholds.

Tomorrow we will get results in Georgia’s affluent well-educated 6th District special election. That will be another imperfect laboratory. If Ossoff wins, we’ll be told that the Democrats are back on track. If he loses, no matter by how little, we’ll be told that the Democrats have never been more pathetic. In truth, the outcome can’t teach us either thing. It might provide comfort for the idea that the Democrats can win again without more rural support, and that would probably be the most dangerous possible outcome.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com