Demographic Shifts to Effect Virginia’s Political Speechwriting in 2012

July 18, 2011

Virginia’s
General Assembly leaders are currently dealing with the issue of
redistricting, which will have a major impact on Virginia politics due
to demographic changes.   

Speech writing and political communications are always important in any presidential election.

But in a newly-christened swing state like Virginia,
where the political environment can grow contentious with a single
soundbite, a speech could mean success or failure at the polls.

As the 2012 cycle
gains momentum, political speech writing will take on a new sense of
importance as presidential candidates vie for the electoral will of the
state.

According to Jeff Schapiro, political reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the seed of Virginia’s “battleground” moniker was planted some three decades ago.

“[Virginia] emerged as a battleground state slowly,” Schapiro said.
“I think there are probably two things, both geographic and demographic:
This is a state who’s politics is dominated, controlled by, the
suburbs.”

This influx into the suburbs is not surprising, considering Virginia’s population has increased by some 700,000 between 2001 and 2008.

There has also been a pronounced Hispanic immigration in the Commonwealth, as evidenced by the seven Hispanic candidates running for various political offices around the state, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Dr. Craig Smith of the National Communication Association is a
professor of political communication at California State University,
Long Beach, and a former speech writer for Presidents Gerald Ford and
George H.W. Bush. According to him, speech writing in a battleground
state like Virginia is tightly controlled and highly tested.

“Basically, pollsters provide issue-position information to the
speech writers. Each issue is accompanied with the preferred position of
the voter,” He said. “The speech can then be composed around the
majority position or in a way that accommodates it.  One could just talk
about the problem and avoid dealing with a divisive solution.”

This
data, from the US Census Bureau, provides an estimate of the increase
in the Virginian population over eight years, from 2000 to 2008. This
increase is notable because it has directly contributed to Virginia’s
development into a swing-state, which includes the influx of minorities,
out-of-state migration, and the rise of affluent suburbs in Northern
Virginia. (Excel
Spreadsheet:http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/tables/SUB-EST2008-04-51.xls
).

For the candidates in 2012, this information will undoubtedly
influence political speech writing and communications. For those
involved in honing a candidate’s message, one word should be informing
their approach more than any other:

Moderation.

Josh Dare, former speech writer and co-founder and principle at the Hodges Partnership, a Richmond-based PR firm, said as much.

“If Virginia is a battleground state, you’d think that means that
it’s a state where moderation should take place,” Dare said. “Where the
people who are shouting on the fringes would be less influential that
the mainstream, because it’s the mainstream that’s going to tip it blue
or red.”

Yet striving to moderate should not influence speech writers and
communications officials to ignore other truths that have just as much
to do with Virginia’s battleground status.

Geography is another.

Director of the University of Richmond’s Speech Center
Professor Linda Hobgood, who specializes in political rhetoric, public
speaking, and speech writing, outlined another characteristic of Virginia’s political speech writing.

According to Hobgood, Virginia’s location makes it ripe for comparison with Washington D.C.

“My guess,” She continued, “is that writers will note the contrast
between Virginia’s fiscal solvency and the kind of drag created by
Washington being in such overwhelming debt. It’s a popular entity to run
against.”

Dare also identified Virginia’s geography as having a direct impact on political speech.

“We have an amazingly diverse state,” Dare said. “The people who live
in the Northern part of the state and the people that live in the
Southwest part of the state are different kinds of people.”

Bill Bosher, professor of Public Policy in the Wilder School of
Government and Public Affairs, went even further, identifying a handful
of these specific pockets from the perspective of a speech writer.

“Today, you don’t go to northern Virginia politically and not talk about transportation, because there’s gridlock,” Bosher said. “You don’t go to the south side of Virginia (Danville, Martinsville, Henry County) and not talk about jobs. You don’t go to Tidewater in Virginia and not talk about the importance of the military.”

Both Bosher and Dare agreed that the trick is to take these regional
issues and figure out a way to raise them to state-wide prominence.

Dan Balz, national political correspondent at the Washington Post, put it this way:

“Political speech is aimed at different constituencies at different
times [but] the best political speech is that which communicates across
demographic groups.”

Whatever lessons speech writers choose to heed or ignore, the fact
remains that next year’s election cycle in Virginia will be anything if
not contentious.

Yet Hobgood has faith in the power of the political speech in the Commonwealth.

“I’d like to think that the spoken word holds greater sway in the Old
Dominion than elsewhere,” she said. “I venture to say that Virginia’s
are content to stand in the heat to hear a good speech.