In GOP areas, Obama 'turned them blue'

WASHINGTON -- Few places were safe for Republicans this year.

Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency Tuesday by swinging voters to his side in almost every corner of the country, scoring new support even in rural and suburban places that have long been reliably Republican.

Those shifts were sometimes broad, and they came as many parts of the country reel from the effects of an economic crisis that sent waves of foreclosures through middle-class neighborhoods. They altered — or in some cases even reversed — the outcomes in counties John McCain needed to win.

"The whole story is that Obama basically set up camp in red areas and turned them blue," says Robert Lang, one of the directors of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

Obama's campaign won eight states that voted for President Bush in 2004, giving the Democrat a comfortable Electoral College victory. Two more states, Missouri and North Carolina, were too close to call Wednesday night.

The changes mask broader shifts in the USA's electoral map:

• Obama made inroads in the nation's fast-growing suburbs, where the foreclosure crisis has been especially severe. Republicans carried most of those areas, but by a smaller margin than in 2004. Some of those counties, including Arapahoe in Colorado and Prince William in Virginia, supported Obama.

In Arapahoe, Bush beat Democrat John Kerry, 51.5% to 47.5%; Obama won 55.3% to 43.2%. In Prince William, Bush won by 6.5 percentage points; Obama beat McCain by 12.5 percentage points.

• Republican support in the nation's rural counties eroded. Even in counties that voted overwhelmingly against Obama, he picked up enough votes to help win critical battleground states such as Indiana and Ohio.

• Big cities, which typically vote heavily for Democrats, voted even more heavily for Obama. Places such as Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and Richmond, Va., gave Obama tens of thousands more votes than they did for Kerry in 2004. That happened as turnout among black voters reached its highest level on record, and as they turned their support overwhelmingly to Obama.

• Areas near the Mexican border voted more heavily for Obama than they did for Kerry four years ago. That includes places such as Maverick County, Texas, along the Rio Grande, which Obama won much more decisively than Kerry did. Surveys of voters suggested Democrats erased the inroads President Bush made among Hispanics when he was re-elected in 2004.

• Swing counties — those decided by narrow margins over the past four elections — didn't matter as much as they used to. Obama won the election even though he lost more than half of the counties that researchers, including Lang, said would be critical in shaping the outcome. Instead, Obama captured the presidency by winning over voters almost everywhere.

Those moves showed the economic crisis, coupled with widespread unhappiness with the Bush administration, "played out all across the country," says Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. "The question is whether it's a one-off, if things settle back into the old patterns."

Some of the most pronounced shifts were in the suburbs, an analysis by Lang and Casey Dawkins of the Metropolitan Institute suggests. Though McCain carried the growing outer suburbs of the nation's biggest cities, he had less support there than Bush did. Democrats' margins increased in older, slower-growing suburban counties.

That's what happened in Virginia, a state reliably Republican for decades, where far-flung suburbs of Washington and Richmond backed Obama. Those counties, including booming Loudoun and Prince William, voted for Bush in 2004 but had been hit hard by home foreclosures as the economy soured.

"We put a lot of resources into them," says Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party. "We made sure we opened up offices in places where people had never seen Democrats before."

The shifts raise a worry for Republicans: What if they last? "The turnout was heavy. I thought that would help us," says Robert Rector, the GOP chairman in Granville County, N.C., home to expanding suburbs outside Raleigh. Bush won Granville four years ago; this year, Obama carried it comfortably. "Hopefully it'll turn out differently in 2012. We'll see."