warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Losing The Message In West Virginia

Matt Pressberg |
November 21, 2012 | 3:43 a.m. PST


Unlike President Obama, Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Rockefeller are Democrats who West Virginians are happy to vote for. (SenRockefeller/Flickr)
Unlike President Obama, Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Rockefeller are Democrats who West Virginians are happy to vote for. (SenRockefeller/Flickr)
Michael Dukakis is probably the Democratic Party’s most embarrassing ex. If he’ll be remembered at all, it will be as the ultimate beta-male liberal who gave convicted murderers weekend passes from prison, did not exactly stand up for his theoretically raped and murdered wife and somehow managed to look stupid and weak sitting in a tank.

G.I. Mike ran for president in 1988 and was routed by George Bush I to the score of 421-111. He did manage to hold the longtime Democratic stronghold of West Virginia, which fell to Reagan in his 1984 domination of Walter Mondale, but was responsible for 6 of Jimmy Carter’s grand total of 49 electoral votes in 1980. (And for the record, the correct answer to the Mrs. Dukakis question is “I don’t believe it’s the government’s duty to kill my wife’s rapist,” followed by an extended look directly into one of the cameras.)

These were dark times for Democrats and far cry from today, where the national party has its sexy back on the strength of a recently re-elected President Barack Obama and his coalition of the future, competing in states like Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina (and soon Arizona) that only the most optimistic liberals (if they exist) thought would be in play.

Obama won his second term with a decisive 332-206 victory over the second socially awkward former governor of Massachusetts to run for president, Mitt Romney. He also managed to do something Dukakis, Mondale and even the heroic George McGovern couldn’t, lose every county in West Virginia.

After years of being the lovable (and sometimes not-so-lovable) losers, the national Democratic Party has a charismatic champion who is unapologetic and effective in preaching the type of progressive economics many West Virginians, particularly those in the coal belt, have a long history of supporting at the ballot box, even when delivered by a candidate as lame as Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale. But West Virginia can’t stand President Obama. The message remains true, but the messenger has lost his audience.

Republican candidates flirting with birtherism and junk rape science clearly cost the party support from voters who might have generally agreed with it philosophically but were offended by the disconnect between its cultural values and their own. President Obama and other major national Democrats, by sending social policy signals on the opposite end of the spectrum, lost West Virginia in much the same way. As the party expands the map and conquers new territory, it’s had to leave some places behind.

All politics isn’t local

Despite the president’s goose egg, the state party brand seems healthy enough, as West Virginia is governed by Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, is represented in the Senate by Democrats Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, and has Democratic majorities in both state houses.

“I think the Democrats have been strong because the average West Virginia voter is somewhat liberal on economic issues and pretty conservative on social and military issues, and I think that’s where the Democratic Party in West Virginia has largely placed itself,” Neil Berch said. “I think the history of organized labor, I think the fact that the state is the 49th wealthiest—I think that’s a position that’s going to resonate.”

Berch is an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University who specializes in state politics. He places the state’s Democratic Party well to the right of its national counterpart on social issues, but the “spread the wealth” ethos endorsed by President Obama, which is of course socialism to a great many ahistorical voters, is embraced by mainstream West Virginia Democrats.

“I think the big place you would find differences between the two parties in the state is on economic issues,” Berch said. “The Democrats are much more redistributive than the Republicans.”

The ‘war on coal’

Coal mining has always been a critical part of the state’s economy, even if it employs only a fraction of the West Virginians it once did. As the chart at the end of the article shows, coal is still being blasted out of the Mountain State’s hills at a high volume, but using a lot less manpower to get the job done, a downward trend that has been going on for decades.

It’s one thing for a job to be replaced by advanced computing or robotics. It’s another for it to be replaced by dynamite—especially considering warning signs have been there for decades.

Berch sees “little difference between the two parties” on coal, with leaders of both pushing a narrative in which they defend the noble coal miner from the evil regulators in Washington who just don’t understand the needs of real West Virginians. Being the second-poorest state, West Virginia doesn’t seem to have benefited much from digging in to fight for a declining industry with dangerous jobs that pollutes the atmosphere.

When asked if any prominent West Virginia politicians were prepared to tell the hard truths that coal jobs are not disappearing because of Washington elitists, but creative destruction, and the state would be better served by being proactive and diversifying, Berch could only point at one who is no longer with us.

 “Well, Robert Byrd did that some in his later years,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s anybody at the moment who is taking that position.”

Pushed on whether he thought it was simply easier to sell the populist line about coal in order to stay in office, Berch agreed. “I think, largely,” he said.

Being led by a Chicago community organizer turned constitutional lawyer and not a Texas oilman, the Obama administration was always going to be tougher on carbon emissions than that of climate change skeptic George W. Bush. The current iteration of the Environmental Protection Agency under the stewardship of Lisa Jackson has indeed taken a much stricter approach in permitting coal plants, leaving the president vulnerable to accusations that he is fighting a “War on Coal.”

In fact, the coal-producing counties in the southwest of the state that made up the Democratic heart of West Virginia had been slipping away for several cycles, but this year the last two stragglers, Boone County and McDowell County, made Romney their first Republican choice for president since Richard Nixon in 1972.

The president has successfully been scapegoated by anyone who could gain a political advantage from doing so as the driving force behind the industry’s downturn, including members of his own party in West Virginia, despite the fact that cheap natural gas and mechanization is much more responsible for the decline in coal mining jobs than anything a president who hasn’t even served a full term yet would have been able to pull off.

Berch agrees that the more aggressive tack of the EPA under this Democratic administration has been an impediment to the national party, but doesn’t think it alone is the reason why West Virginia has settled firmly in the Republican column.

“The state’s not in play because the state is more conservative than the national Democrats on social and military issues,” Berch said. “The coal issue makes it even harder for national Democrats in a presidential election, but that’s not the decisive issue.”

No drama Obamacare

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, has been masterfully cast by the Republican Party as a major lightning rod issue and a threat to our nation’s liberty. It is a definite expansion of government involvement in our health care system, but reports of our Leninization are premature. One might think that West Virginia voters who are drifting further away from the president, even if they generally support the type of progressive economic policies he favors, would come out strongly against his signature initiative, and what has been the most significant wedge issue in a divisive election.

But this is not really the case. While local pols like Tomblin and Manchin have provided a certain amount of obligatory grumpiness toward the president on this issue to win points with an electorate not fond of him, West Virginia is on its way to putting together a health exchange, like the law requires, and has not been dragged kicking and screaming to do so.

“I suspect in the long term Obamacare will be helpful to West Virginia,” Berch said. “Gov. Tomblin has certainly wanted parts of the health care bill. I think West Virginia’s probably more liberal on the health care bill than it is on a lot of other issues.”

Asked why that is, Berch points to the self-interest of West Virginians who, residing in a state that does relatively poorly on statistical measures of health, stand to gain from a program that expands access to health care.

“I think it’s part of people looking rationally at what the health care bill does for them,” Berch said. “And I suspect that West Virginia will benefit more than some states from the health care bill.”

Lost in translation

Berch recalls a famous campaign ad cut by Manchin when he was running for the seat in the state’s 2010 special election as symbolic of the gulf that has opened up between West Virginia Democrats and the party of Barack Obama.

“Joe Manchin, as part of his campaign, not only opposed the president on various issues but symbolically—or not-so-symbolically—shot the cap-and-trade bill with a gun,” Berch said. “There’s a substantial ideological difference between the median West Virginia Democrat and the median national Democrat.”

This may be true, but when it comes down to policy, the ideological differences between West Virginia Democrats and the national party can mostly be distilled down to coal mining populism and social disconnects stemming from a simple clash of cultures. Even as Joe Manchin took literal aim at the president’s environmental policy, he promised to repeal only “the bad parts of Obamacare.”

America is becoming increasingly caramel and less religious, while West Virginia heads in the opposite direction. The tune of Democratic economic policy hasn’t really changed, but the cultural signifiers of those carrying it have.

After casting romantically idealistic ballots for the likes of Michael Dukakis to save them from trickle-down economics, West Virginians finally have someone in the White House who gets their message and has real power to act on it. It would be a shame to let the messenger get in the way.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.