Eight years ago, after her path to the Democratic presidential nomination had seemingly run out, Hillary Clinton found salvation in West Virginia. The state’s still-dominant Democratic voters gave her a 41-point landslide victory, with wins in every county. At a triumphant rally that quoted John Denver’s “Country Roads,” Clinton recast herself as an election winner, a Democrat who could expand the map — not alienate loyal voters.
“In light of our overwhelming victory here in West Virginia, I want to send a message to all those who are making up their minds,” Clinton said. “The White House is won in the swing states. And I am winning the swing states.”
The legacy of West Virginia loomed for red state Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who quickly endorsed Clinton for 2016. Yet today, Clinton is expected to lose the state, having moved elsewhere as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) barnstormed, and gone dark on the air, as she did in Indiana. In every West Virginia poll, the candidate who won every county last time is trailing the democratic socialist from Vermont.
The rumblings were there last year. In October, I spent some time with Sanders’s grass-roots supporters in West Virginia, who at the time were both outgunned and completely confident of victory — if the primary only lasted long enough. Voters who had backed Clinton in 2008 had bailed on her for several reasons, the main ones being the Obama administration’s environmental policies and a delayed reaction against her husband’s trade deals.
What has surprised West Virginia’s Democratic establishment, which is deeply skeptical of the idea that Sanders can compete here as a general election candidate, is that a European-style progressive who has called for a carbon tax is winning over voters lost by the coal issue. Clinton and Sanders basically share the environmental position that coal is dirty, and the future is in renewable energy. But Clinton has been pummeled by Republicans for a tin-eared answer to a question about this, at a CNN town hall in March.
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country,” Clinton told a questioner. “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.”
The “coal miners … out of business” part of the quote was easily weaponized against Clinton. Sanders, with basically the same position, never faced an attack about it. In October, he told The Washington Post that the government should inform coal miners that their industry was “helping to cause climate change” and that “we’ll protect you financially as we transition away from fossil fuel.”
This month, in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Sanders said basically the same thing. “We understand it is not the fault of the coal miners, or people included in the fossil fuel industry. They have a right to want to feed their families and live in dignity,” he said. “We have $41 billion in [climate] legislation to make sure that those workers who might be displaced as a result of the transition away from fossil fuel get the extended unemployment benefits they need, get the education they need, get the job training that they need.”
Inskeep did not follow up, allowing Sanders — to the quiet frustration of Clinton supporters — to present the same existential threat to the coal industry, but court no political backlash.
Larry Cohen, the former Communications Workers of America president and a close Sanders ally, said that the real rub between the candidates was in trade policy. “A big part of the industry in West Virginia is metallurgical coal,” he said. “Bernie’s saying, let’s not move the steel industry to China. You add to that his commitment to transportation infrastructure and he’s got much more to say to voters in West Virginia.”
Sanders also lacks one of the vulnerabilities Democrats hated to admit about Barack Obama in West Virginia. He is white. In the most infamous result from 2008’s exit poll, 22 percent of Democratic primary voters said that race was a factor in their votes. Eighty-two percent of them backed Clinton. Seven percent of all voters cast ballots for John Edwards, who by that point had been out of the race for three months. Supporters of Sanders are well aware that the candidate may win votes that Obama lost, for the simple reason of race.
“I have an answer, but I don’t know if I want it in print,” said Mike Manypenny, a former state lawmaker who has been organizing for Sanders near Morgantown. “Let’s say, I wonder if race might have been part of the issue that might have pushed her over the top. I would like to not think that, but I wonder.”
A Sanders triumph Tuesday night in West Virginia would give the senator’s supporters one of their biggest 2016 upsets, and the biggest turnarounds in a state that backed Clinton. With the Republican primary functionally over, a big defeat for Clinton might kick off weeks of negative coverage, while Sanders cops her 2008 message and insists he is the more electable candidate.
It’s the reason that Clinton’s campaign is advertising again, in Kentucky. And it’s a reason why the protest vote in West Virginia, where a felon won 41 percent of the vote just by running against Obama in 2012, will be watched almost as closely as the victory margin.