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Isle of Wight has been reliably red for decades

Few people admit to voting for a political party.

“I vote for the person, not the party” is a standard refrain among voters.

And, no doubt, some do. But the statistical reality is that a significant percentage — generally 55% to 60% — of Isle of Wight voters will vote Republican no matter who the candidate or what the issues. Through a combination of factors, including a significant decline in the relative voting strength of the county’s African American population during the past several decades, the county has become a bulwark for Republicans.

Donald Trump received the support of 58.5% of Isle of Wight voters four years ago. After four years in office, he received precisely the same share, 58.5%. The total vote increased because, like the rest of the country, voters here turned out in record or near-record numbers, but the percentage of support remained firm — and solid.

George W. Bush did even better back when he was running. He won 63% of the county’s vote in 2004 and 59% in 2000.

The local vote in statewide and federal elections is amazingly consistent. Mitt Romney took 57% of Isle of Wight’s votes in 2012 and John McCain received 56% in 2008.

In the late years of the 20th century, the margins were narrower, but still consistently Republican. Bill Clinton received 44% of the county’s vote in 1996, trailing Bob Dole’s 47%, but that narrower margin can partially be attributed to the 7% that Ross Perot garnered back then.

You have to go back four decades to find a Democratic presidential candidate who received local support. That would be Jimmy Carter, who carried Isle of Wight in both his successful bid for the office in 1976 and his unsuccessful attempt for reelection in 1980.

It’s not just presidential elections in which the GOP prevails here. This year, political newcomer Daniel M. Gade, who challenged U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, lost to Warner statewide by a spread of more than 10 percentage points, but in Isle of Wight, he received, like Trump, 58% to Warner’s 42%.

Six years earlier, in 2014, Warner had failed to carry the county against Republican Ed Gillespie during Warner’s successful bid for reelection.

Likewise, former Gov. Tim Kaine won his Senate seat in 2012 by defeating another former governor, George Allen, 53% to 47% statewide. But in Isle of Wight, Allen received 57%.

The last time county residents supported any Democrat was in 2009, when county voters helped send Del. William K. Barlow back to Richmond despite a challenge by Isle of Wight Supervisor Stan Clark, who ran as a Republican.

Two years later, though, after the state was redistricted, Barlow was soundly defeated by Republican Rick Morris. Morris served three terms but in 2017 decided against seeking a fourth. The seat remains Republican, occupied by Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk.

The last time the county supported a Democrat for governor was 2001. Mark Warner won statewide and carried Isle of Wight by the slimmest of margins — 19 votes — in a statistical tie with Republican Mark Earley.

While redistricting has recently impacted voting patterns for state and congressional offices, a change in county demographics is clearly a contributing factor, and quite possibly the biggest one. In 1970, the county’s population of 18,000 was split down the middle, with 50% of the county’s population people of color. A generally strong Democratic vote by black residents, together with a portion of the white voters, meant a pretty consistent Democratic vote in the county during those years.

The best example of that early Democratic strength is probably the gubernatorial election of 1977, when Isle of Wight voters bucked the statewide tide and endorsed Henry Howell over Chuck Robb.

By 1980, people were moving into the county, and most of them were white. A number of young black residents were leaving, looking for better economic opportunities elsewhere, and the black population of Isle of Wight dropped to 40%.

By 1990 the black population was down to 32%, and it was during that decade — from 1980 to 1990 — that the county’s voting pattern began tilting dramatically toward the Republican ticket in every election.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.