The ghost of Prince William County

It’s all about race.

And age.

Religion? Uh, surely that’s not a factor worth exploring.

That’s my interpretation of a front-page New York Times story today that focuses on the changing demographics in Prince William County, Va., and their impact on Tuesday’s presidential election:

A couple of decades ago, Prince William County was one of the mostly white, somewhat rural, far-flung suburbs where Republican candidates went to accumulate the votes to win elections in Virginia.

Since then, Prince William has been transformed. Open tracts have given way to town houses and gated developments, as the county — about a half-hour south of Washington — has risen to have the seventh-highest household income in the country and has become the first county in Virginia where minorities make up more than half the population.

If Prince William looks like the future of the country, Democrats have so far developed a much more successful strategy of appealing to that future. On Tuesday, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 15 percentage points in Prince William, nearly doubling George W. Bush’s margin over Al Gore in 2000, helping Mr. Obama to a surprisingly large victory in Virginia.

At GetReligion, our mantra is that “holy ghosts” all too often haunt mainstream news stories. We see these ghosts in stories where religion seems to be a major theme, yet somehow religion shows up nowhere in the text. Welcome to the ghost of Prince William County.

As Mollie wisely pointed out already today, reporters should proceed with caution when trying to make sense of the reasons people voted the way they did — and the religious motivations, if any, behind their choices. At the same time, it seems extremely strange for the Times to attempt to assess Prince William County’s voting patterns with no acknowledgment of the religion question.

For example, consider this paragraph:

The Republican Party “needs messages and policies that appeal to a broader audience,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush. “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

Who is that “shrinking base?” Would it include evangelicals for whom issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are closely tied to their religious beliefs? Could the rise of the “nones” be a factor?

Regrettably, the Times doesn’t bother to address such questions.

Diversity image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • sari

    I read the article earlier today and knew someone would comment on it. We, who are interested in religion, should also avoid reading in what might not be there. For instance, Obama won the Hispanic vote by a huge margin, but that may be due more to the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant stance than to religious affiliation or degree of observance. A look at Texas county by county demonstrates this pretty well.

    “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

    To me this quote referred more to the way the party has excluded whole classes of people, not on the basis of their religion necessarily (ok, maybe here in Texas, where the party platform until recently stated that the US must return to being a Christian nation), but on the basis of ethnicity (illegal immigrants), income (the 47%, many of whom would love to be working; proposed cuts to social services, like Medicaid)), color (‘nuf said), gender, and age (our kids do not see rosy futures ahead of them). It acknowledged that the Republican Party’s message failed to resonate with whole classes of people, people who have been marginalized for one reason or another, and that it has ignored huge shifts in demographics (e.g., Hispanics will soon exceed non-Hispanic whites in Texas and other places).

    Many here imply that the country is “redder” overall, but that Romney was too moderate. In view of Mourdock and Akins, it may be that the opposite was true, that Romney might have won as a moderate but that he turned off many people when he aligned his positions to the party’s more extreme element. Not everything is predicated on religion, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Sometimes a duck is just a duck.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Sari,

      My point is not that religion explains the changing voting patterns in Prince William County. It’s that the question deserves to be asked (and reflected in the story).

      • sari

        Maybe, but I truly don’t believe it to be relevant to this article except insofar as the Republican Party has allowed one religious perspective to dominate its message. Perhaps what should have been asked was whether or not allowing very conservative Christians to dictate the party platform alienated large segments of the population, not because they contradicted their religious beliefs (as an observant Jew, I would not, for instance, recommend abortion as a means of birth control), but because they felt their own religious freedom threatened.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    One huge reason our country was founded with a District of Columbia was so that government employees would not have inordinate power–especially to get greater and greater pay). But since Big Media loves Big Government, rarely mentioned in the media is how the Democratic Party (the Big Government Party) has been the beneficiary of very high paid federal employees ( nowadays getting more pay than most in the private sector) flooding into Maryland and Virginia. Why no exit poll asking the question on whether someone is a government employee and how they voted????

  • Kimberly Hampton

    To say that one needs to ask the question about religion when it comes to Prince William County still means that you are mostly going to be dealing with the issue of race. If one is going to talk about “evangelicals”, then you have to separate white evangelicals from evangelicals of color, as they vote differently.

    But both you and the article miss something else—history. Prince William County closed its public schools for a year after Brown v. Board was handed down so they wouldn’t have to integrate. The more time passes (and old Confederates die), the more that history fades away. Virginia was always a little different than the rest of the old Confederacy, and now that northern (and eastern) Virginia carry the majority of the population; and many of that population is northern transplants, religion will have very little to do with how things go in Virginia. Demography is destiny, and religion, when talking about groups other than white evangelicals (and to a lesser degree Catholics), is just not a factor.

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