WASHINGTON — Assuming the 2016 U.S. presidential election remains close, Virginia is one of a handful of states that could decide whether the next president is Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump. And if you want to know which way Virginia will vote November 8, you might want to keep tabs on what happens in Loudoun County, in northern Virginia.
For years, Loudoun County was reliably Republican, helping Virginia support Republican presidential candidates from 1968 through 2004. But in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama put Virginia back in the Democratic column, and he did it again in 2012, thanks in no small part to a winning margin of victory in Loudoun.
In recent years, Loudoun County has seen an explosion of growth driven to a large extent by the expanding high-tech industry, which values northern Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C. High-tech companies have hired thousands of highly skilled workers from abroad, especially India, and the changing demographics are driving political shifts that have turned Virginia into a classic battleground state.
“So all of this was just wide-open farmland.” Loudoun County Democratic activist Craig Green told VOA from the middle of a major new town center development called One Loudoun, where retail shops, restaurants and condos have risen out of what used to be a rural landscape.
“And now, as you can see, we’ve got this big retail-residential thing going on,” Green said. “There are data centers all around us.”
Those data centers dot the horizon like futuristic behemoths, windowless warehouses through which a large percentage of the world’s internet data passes.
Green says the economic expansion coupled with demographic changes in Loudoun are a boon to Democrats and present a challenge for Trump.
“I went canvassing this weekend, and pretty much universally it was, ‘Oh, that Trump guy, there is no way I could vote for him,’” Green said. “No matter what we had to say about anything else, it was, you know, ‘That guy just doesn’t make sense.’”
Green said Loudoun is quickly becoming a model of diversity. Recent Census Bureau data shows Asians now make up nearly 15 percent of Loudoun County’s population.
“You just see people from India and people from China and people from Africa, there are a lot of Africans here … a big diaspora going on of people coming for opportunity,” he said. “And they are very skilled people, and they are very smart people, so it’s an incredible vibrant place to live right now.”
‘Everybody is really equal’
Software engineer Sri Amudhanar emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago. He has lived in Ashburn, Virginia, since 1998 and is becoming active in Democratic Party politics in the county.
Amudhanar said the influx of immigrants and resulting demographic changes have made them a force to be reckoned with.
“They take an oath of citizenship when they become Americans, and that is a very solemn process,” he said recently on a hill overlooking Ashburn. “It is a very moving process, and we have all gone through that, and that binds us to America very, very strongly and to its values, and one of the values is that everybody is really equal.”
Amudhanar predicts the demographics will be an obstacle for Trump given some of his controversial statements about Muslims and Mexicans.
“Immigrants are more tolerant of other lifestyles and other opinions and other religious persuasions and so on. So you’ll find that immigrants in general want a fair, even playing field for everybody.”
Trump: ‘got to finish it off’
Despite the demographic changes, Trump is making a serious bid to win Virginia, and plenty of supporters turned out for a recent rally in Ashburn where he urged them to work harder in Loudoun County.
“What we are doing is one of the great political phenomena of all time,” Trump said to cheers. “But very importantly, it is one of the great movements of all time. We have got to finish it off. We have got to finish it off.”
Trump’s theme of making America great again has struck a chord with Leesburg businessman Bryan Crosswhite. Crosswhite hosted a Republican unity event recently at one of his restaurants in Leesburg, and he predicts a close battle in Loudoun.
“I believe (Trump) resonates with Americans, normal Americans, who have traditional values in our country,” Crosswhite said in describing Trump’s appeal. “He resonates because he is a straight-talker. He speaks the truth whether you like it or not. He’s going to tell you what he thinks.”
Trump loyalists are active in Loudoun, and Green, a Democrat activist, acknowledges the race will be close. He also said that Clinton supporters have a challenge to persuade undecided voters that the race is not simply one of “choosing the lesser of two evils.”
More than 150 years ago, Virginia was the epicenter of the American Civil War, and battle monuments are plentiful throughout the state, including the statue of a Confederate soldier on the grounds of the Loudoun County courthouse in Leesburg.
Today, Virginia is a battleground of a different sort, a mix of the traditional and the new, where changing demographics and shifting political outlooks have turned this once reliably Republican enclave into a state that is now competitive for both parties, and one that could play a pivotal role in deciding the next president on November 8.