(USA TODAY) - Virginia, until recently a reliable supporter of Republican presidential candidates, has become a vitally important swing state that may hold the key to this year's presidential elections.
That's why President Obama, GOP challenger Mitt Romney and independent groups allied with both candidates have spent more on ads in Virginia than in any other state except Ohio, campaign figures show.
"The fact that both camps are advertising for the general election in early June shows that both camps are taking this (state) seriously," said Roanoke College political scientist Harry Wilson.
That's far different from a few election cycles ago, when Republicans could afford to take Virginia's support for granted and Democrats wrote off the state as unwinnable.
Neither candidate will neglect Virginia this year, when its 13 electoral votes are up for grabs.
Estimated ad expenditures by both sides in Virginia totaled $4.3 million between April 10 - when former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania exited the race and Romney became the presumptive GOP nominee - and May 29, according to ad data analyzed by Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Mitt Romney is joined by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, Va., on May 3.
By Election Day, Virginians will have seen and heard so many campaign ads, "everybody is going to be glad that it's over," Wilson said. "Everybody is going to be sick of the ads."
Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, was the only other swing state that saw higher ad expenditures - $8.4 million, according to data compiled by Kantar Media and published by National Journal magazine.
In Virginia, independent groups aligned with Romney are outspending those supporting Obama, Wilner said in an email. Obama is raising more money than Romney from Virginia donors, though that may change as the election nears.
Federal records show Obama had raised nearly $4.2 million in Virginia as of April 30. Romney had raised nearly $3.4 million.
In 2008, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to win Virginia. Last month, he kicked off his re-election campaign with appearances at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Ohio.
Obama can expect to fare better in Virginia than in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts. That's because the state has fewer blue-collar white voters, a higher proportion of voters between 18 and 30, and many more upper-income suburban voters, he said.
"The demographic profile fits him better in Virginia," he said.
Virginia has permanently changed its political color from Republican "red" to swing-state "purple" because of demographic changes, analysts say.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato ticked off the changes - rising numbers of minorities, the decline of the white population since the 1980s and the growth of affluent and politically moderate Northern Virginia.
"These are permanent changes," Sabato said. "They aren't going to reverse. Therefore, demographically the state is still ripe for a Democratic candidate to win whenever Democrats are competitive nationally."
Romney may have tougher going in Virginia this year than in other swing states because of those demographic changes, analysts said.
Federal workers in Northern Virginia may be turned off by his plans to shrink government and independents may be put off by his association with state Republicans, who pushed abortion rights and other socially divisive issues in the last legislative session, Roberts said.
Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among a handful of states expected to decide the 2012 election. Other swing states are Florida (29 electoral votes), New Mexico (five electoral votes), Nevada (six electoral votes), Colorado (nine electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes) and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes).
Three of the states - Florida, North Carolina and Virginia - were part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The other eight states that belonged to the Confederacy - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - are all "red" states expected to support Romney this year.