Politics in the mid-Atlantic Coast state of Virginia have turned toward moderate Democrats in recent years after years of conservative Republican dominance. But how its Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primary will play out is at best a guessing game.
Virginia is one of 14 U.S. states voting in Democratic presidential nominating contests March 3, when a third of all delegates to July's national convention will be picked in one day of balloting.
Virginia, with 99 pledged delegates at stake, has the fourth-biggest haul of national delegates up for grabs after California with 415, Texas with 228 and North Carolina with 110.
Ultimately, Democrats will pick a nominee to oppose Republican President Donald Trump in November's national election. The extent of Virginia's influence in selecting that nominee remains to be seen.
A mid-February poll by Monmouth University showed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden locked in a tight race at the top in Virginia, with ex-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts further back.
But the survey was taken before Bloomberg's first national debate recently, in which the billionaire stumbled against other challengers after spending more than $400 million of his own money on national television ads to introduce himself to the American electorate. And it was before Sanders decisively won the Nevada caucuses last Saturday, with Biden a distant second.
Edge to Sanders
The fivethirtyeight.com polling analysis site on Wednesday showed Sanders with an edge in Virginia over Bloomberg, with Biden running third.
Fivethirtyeight election analyst Geoffrey Skelley said, "It would be crazy to say who is going to win." He predicted that Sanders, Bloomberg and Biden would split most of the pledged Virginia delegates.
"Virginia is something of a microcosm" of the U.S., where Sanders has won pluralities in the first three nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, not majorities, Skelley said.
In Virginia, as in the contests in all states in the Democratic nominating process, the national convention delegates will be apportioned according to the candidates' proportional share of the March 3 vote, not winner take all.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, also said the Virginia vote could lead to a split of its national delegates, not a decisive win for any of the Democrats.
"It's probably pretty close," Kondik said. "Virginia seems competitive to me, which helps Sanders if he just prevents another candidate from dominating. That would help him, because his chances are better elsewhere" in the Super Tuesday voting for the large haul of national convention delegates, especially in California with its large number of pledged delegates at stake.
The northern part of Virginia, just outside Washington where thousands of highly educated federal workers live and in recent years have decisively voted for Democrats, played a key role in giving the party control this year of the Virginia Legislature after decades of Republican dominance.
Areas of support for Sanders
But Kondik said Northern Virginia may not be Sanders territory, with his appeal in the state more likely in downstate working-class communities or university towns with college-age voters. Kondik suggested that the vote-rich suburbs outside Washington could split their ballots among several of the challengers to Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist who has become the clear front-runner in national polls of Democrats to oppose Trump.
Biden, long popular among African American voters, could benefit from the fact that 20% or more of the Virginia electorate is black.
In Virginia, Bloomberg, just as in other Super Tuesday states, has opened his checkbook to create a presence for his candidacy. He has hired 80 paid staffers to promote his candidacy in Virginia and has opened seven field offices, far more than the other candidates.
But Bloomberg's standing in the state and nationally is somewhat unknown after his faltering first debate and a more forceful second debate performance this week in South Carolina, which votes Saturday, three days ahead of Super Tuesday.
"If Bloomberg was hurt by the [first] debate, we don't know that yet," Kondik said. "It's possible he's in a fall we don't know yet."
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker, who has not endorsed any of the presidential challengers, called the primary outcome "fluid in Virginia. The Democratic voters are smart and taking their time to consider" the candidates. "It's continuing to evolve."
But she said she was sure of state Democratic voters' most important consideration: beating Donald Trump.
"We have to get him out of office," she said.