A funny thing happened on the way to the West Virginia primary: Mountaineers decided they didn’t like the wife of a man they sent to the White House twice, and voted for in a race of her own eight years ago. Instead, they may prefer one of the most anti-coal candidates in American history.
And even though Clinton can skate to the Democratic nomination without winning West Virginia, a victory gives Sanders another chance to claim momentum—prolonging a slog of a primary. And she may still pull off a win in the state, but available public polling indicates it could be tough.
So she’s spent time trying to court its voters—and it hasn’t gone so well. Her struggles highlight just how much the state has changed—and how consistently bizarre this election cycle has been.
The few polls there are in the state haven’t been kind to Clinton. In February, a MetroNews West Virginia poll gave Sanders a lead of nearly 30 points. It showed him besting her in every age group except senior citizens. A Public Policy Polling poll of the state taken from April 29 to May 1 gave him a much smaller but still sizable lead of 8 percentage points.
Hoppy Kercheval, a longtime West Virginia talk radio host, said he thinks MetroNews’ next public poll will give Sanders an even smaller lead.
Still, they aren’t the kind of numbers Clinton would like in a state where she and her husband have cleaned up.
George Carenbauer, a former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party who supports Clinton, said a TV ad for an obscure Supreme Court race has hurt her. Beth Walker, a conservative running for the state supreme court, has cut an ad that shows a Clinton quote suggesting she wanted coal miners to lose their jobs.
“We are going to put a lot of coal miners out of business. —Hillary Clinton” reads text highlighted onscreen in the spot.
Clinton took significant criticism from West Virginians for that comment, which she made at a March CNN forum. And when a West Virginia miner confronted her about it this month, she repented—sort of.
“What I said was totally out of context from what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time,” she told the miner, according to NBC. “What I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs. That’s what I meant to say.”
But that doesn’t matter one bit for TV ads.
“You can’t turn on the TV without seeing that clip,” said Carenbauer of Walker’s ad.
Neither Clinton nor Sanders are spending big on West Virginia, so Walker’s ad has gone largely unanswered.
Kercheval said the dynamic is a bit odd. Sanders is to Clinton’s left on energy issues—for instance, he supports an outright ban on fracking, while she doesn’t—but that one comment she made seems to have permanently tarred her in the state.
“It’s funny, because Sanders is far more anti-fossil fuel,” Kercheval said. “But that statement by Hillary is like—the bell got rung.”
Kent Carper, a Kanawha County commissioner and Democrat who backs Clinton, said Sanders’s support puzzles him.
“His record on fossil fuel makes Hillary look like the Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “He wants to eliminate fracking! That’s the only thing we got left, really. I’m not saying it’s good for anything other than a bunch of people making money off it, but he is totally against extraction of fossil fuels which is what, unfortunately, we’ve depended on for our whole life.”
But Sanders’s populist rhetoric and perceived authenticity have given him a boost, according to longtime West Virginia political observers—a state that’s long been in miserable economic shape, and has been hit hard by the worst of the opiate epidemic. Analysis from West Virginia University shows that the state lost 8,000 jobs over the last three years and has the country’s lowest labor force participation rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginians have one of the shortest life expectancy rates in the country. The Charleston Gazette found last summer that, per capita, West Virginia had twice the national average of deaths related to drug overdoses. And prescription drug abuse has devastated the state; the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that over five years, wholesale drug distributors sent 200 million pain pills to the state (more than 100 per person).
“People are in a lot of pain in this state,” said Danny Jones, the Republican mayor of Charleston. “Donald Trump speaks to their pain.”
So does Sanders, other observers add, saying Clinton’s comment on miners’ jobs confirmed all their suspicions about D.C. politicians.
“It plays into the fears of, ‘Washington doesn’t understand us, Washington doesn’t understand our economy, Washington doesn’t understand what we’re going through,’” said Mike Plante, a Democratic consultant based in Charleston. “That certainly has stoked some anti-Clinton folks in favor of Sen. Sanders.
“It’s not so much individual policy issues as it’s what his candidacy symbolizes,” Plante added, citing Sanders’s perception as an outsider candidate. “The largest single factor, I believe, is the symbolism of the campaign.”
And Sanders’s comparative friendliness to gun rights plays well in the state, he added. On top of that, his rhetoric on trade deals has appeal for union workers who tend to oppose agreements like NAFTA.
For all practical purposes, West Virginia is a Southern state with a very low African-American population and a comparatively high organized labor presence, Plante said. In other words, you could hardly make a state in a lab that would be better for Sanders.
The Vermont senator benefits greatly from its demographic homogeneity. Unlike other Southern-ish states, West Virginia is overwhelmingly white—according to 2014 census data, less than 4 percent of West Virginians are African-American, and less than 2 percent are Hispanic. Carenbauer said this likely boosts Donald Trump as well.
“It’s a very odd thing that a message that says ‘Build a wall to keep Mexicans out’ resonates well in a state where there are no Mexicans at all,” Carenbauer said. “It’s a fact. I don’t understand it, but it’s a fact.”
And a central component of Clinton’s primary strategy is also a liability there: her propensity to mention Obama every 10 seconds. Gallup found that in 2013, only Wyoming had a smaller percentage of residents who approved of him. In 2012, convicted felon Keith Judd racked up 41 percent of the state’s Democratic primary votes. West Virginians don’t like Obama.
“Even if you’re running for county commissioner, people run against Obama here,” Kercheval said.
West Virginia’s three electoral college votes have had historic import; in the final count in 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by three votes—and he lost West Virginia, after Bill Clinton won it twice. So taking the state for granted hasn’t served Democrats well. Jones, who wasn’t ready to commit to voting for the party’s presumptive nominee, said Hillary Clinton’s best bet in West Virginia is just to write it off.
“It’s not only in the bag—it’s down the chimney in the stocking,” he said. “Donald Trump will beat her so bad.”