West Virginia offers us an interesting case study in terms of working-class, rural white voter preferences in U.S. Presidential Elections. 93% of the state’s population is white, so it presents us with a good environment for analyzing this demographic’s voting habits and political beliefs. This is particularly useful to understand, as this demographic still remains an important plurality in current and subsequent elections. Should the Republicans learn from their current defeat, and prove able to expand their base and become even slightly more inclusive, it will become paramount that the Democratic Party make equal efforts to become more competitive among working-class, rural whites, lest they lose their current, slight edge.
My basic argument is that this demographic is wholly within the ability of the Democratic Party to capture and retain. This is due to the fact that, despite its recent Republican leanings, the state has had a strong Democratic past, particularly when Democratic Party candidates have made strong economically populist arguments, and have been able to minimize and/or neutralize the damage done by the social populism of their conservative Republican opponents. Bill Clinton was able to win West Virginia by large margins in both of his elections, precisely through tactics such as these.
The first thing we must recognize about the state is that socially conservative Democrats dominate the state’s local political structure. This makes sense, as the state is a stronghold of evangelical Protestantism, with 36% of the state identifying as such. The remaining 32% identify as mainline Protestant, 7% as Roman Catholic, 1% as Jewish, 1% as Hindu, 1% don't know, 3% as "other" and 19% as unaffiliated.
These religious beliefs clearly inform the state’s political voting preferences on key issues. According to one survey, 53% of West Virginians identified themselves as “Pro-Life” in the 2005, which is the seventh highest pro-life state rating in the union. This is, I believe, a strong indicator of the state’s religiously infused social conservatism. http://www.surveyusa.com/50State2005/50StateAbortion0805SortedbyProLife.htm
The state’s religiously-motivated voting preferences also come into play when the issue of gay marriage enters the fold. Here, only 16% of the state favors gay marriage. http://legacy.rasmussenreports.com/MembersOnly/2006%20issues/082106%20Views%20on%20cultural%20issues.htm
On the other hand, religiously motivated voting habits among rural, working-class whites do not seem to translate into pure, 100% consistent loyalty for all Republican Party platforms. Indeed, energy and mining make up a large percentage of the state’s economy and many of the state’s residents are employed in these industries, in a working-class, labor-intensive capacity. This is not a state where “country club Republicanism,” and candidates built in that milieu will fare well. As such, the state is bound to have a strong working-class conception of politics, favor the underdog, see themselves and their neighbors as members of an exploited, oppressed and/or downtrodden group that is stepped on by a “manager” or “boss” group above them. The military is also a major employer in the state, and many of the state’s young enroll in the armed forces and serve overseas, due to a scarcity of jobs in the state.
The economic realities of West Virginia thus invariably reflect themselves in political opinions. West Virginia polling data shows that the 58% of the state is in favor of troop withdrawal from Iraq and 52% favored raising taxes on the rich.
Historically, the state was originally a part of Virginia. It was the least prosperous, northwestern, mountainous region and was populated by the poorest sharecroppers, most of whom were religiously devout German and Scotch-Irish descendants of ex-indentured servants who had escaped the tidewater regions of Virginia after their term of service had ended. They carried with them deeply held feelings of animosity toward the aristocratic Virginia gentry and hated slavery. They hated slavery not because of abolitionist moral reasons, but due to economic reasons: small farmers had to pay higher taxes than slave plantations, which operated at much lower tax rates in Virginia than the plantation-corporations. This, combined with the economies of scale, meant that when a slave plantation moved into town, all the small farmers were put out of business and couldn’t compete. In effect, the plantations were the agricultural version of Wal-Mart in the antebellum American south. West Virginians hated this system and they rebelled during the opening months of the Civil War, seceding from the Commonwealth of Virginia and becoming their own independent, pro-Union state, with the blessings of President Lincoln.
This curious mix of socially conservative religious devotion and anti-Establishment fervor was accentuated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when large immigrant influxes added to the state’s mining communities and with it, increased union agitation and unrest. Indeed, some of the nation’s most violent and bloody union confrontations transpired in the state, such as the Battle of Matewan in 1920, where thousands of mine-union members rioted against unjust management practices, resulting in over 2,000 federal troops being sent to the region and the implementation of short-term martial law. Also in 1920 was the Battle of Blair Mountain, where a 10,000 man union army was formed with the intent of storming various counties throughout the state, to unionize the mines and annihilate the hired, private security companies that intimidated the miners and their families. Trenches with machine gun nests were built by the mining companies and private air forces were created on an ad-hoc basis, which dropped home-made bombs on advancing union troops. Hundreds of people died in the fighting between union and corporate forces, before the US military intervened to stop the bloodshed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain
From the Second World War up through 2000, the state has been a reliable Democratic stronghold, minus 1972 and 1984, when the GOP candidate, facing reelection, won some of the most decisive electoral victories ever seen in American history. These victories were won by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and they were secured through the utilization of something called the “southern strategy.” This was, in effect, the GOP effort to win-over the votes of racist, white Southern Democrats, and break them away from the FDR’s anti-big business, New Deal coalition (which many racist, southern whites supported, because, despite being racist, they also hated Wall Street and Big Business, because, let’s face it, they didn’t like being poor). In the wake of integration, LBJ’s Great Society, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Protests of the 1960s and 1970s, many of these whites bolted from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party with open arms, hoping the GOP would lead them to some sort of racial or cultural utopia. This never happened. Instead, the Republicans passed laws that destroyed the economic gains of the Middle and Working Classes, secured by the New Deal and Great Society, and helped create the massive wealth inequality that has plagued the nation since the 1970s.
Back to West Virginia.
On the national level, the state had been represented for many decades by the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, a fiery economic populist from the countryside, who was fond of quoting Greco-Roman classics and attacking the wealthy Wall-Street fat-cats in his speeches. That said, Senator Byrd was also a former member of the Ku-Klux-Klan, something he said he regretted and renounced in later life.
In 1968, Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy didn’t impress West Virginia; it stayed a loyal member of the Democratic Party and voted for Hubert Humphrey. At this time, the Democrats were still playing the economic populism card and weren’t afraid to court unions and the working class. This was the first election to feature Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but it wasn’t as decisive as it would later be, due to the fact that the Democrats were still playing a good, strong game and their economic and social arguments hadn’t yet been blunted and overshadowed by the demagoguery of the GOP.
Then, along with 49 other states in 1972, went with Nixon (only Massachussets voted for McGovern in this election, Nixon won every other state and over 60% of the popular vote in one of the most decisive elections in US Presidential history). This was mostly due to Nixon’s foreign policy successes, his ability to demagogue the peace and protest movement in the US and play it off against the “Great Silent Majority,” and George McGovern’s idealistic, but hopelessly ineffectual abilities as a politician, which caused all of the major Democratic constituencies, such as the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters to abandon him.
In 1976, the state went back to the Democratic fold and the southern boy Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, won its electoral votes. In 1980, Ronald Reagan soundly trounced Jimmy Carter. President Carter was only able to win six states, and West Virginia was one of them. That said, he only won the state by a 4.5% margin. The Southern-Strategy of the GOP, where social issues were trumping economic ones, was starting to pay off.
Indeed, Jimmy Carter had lost major working class support in West Virginia during his Presidency, despite his evangelical Christian background. This was due to the fact that the United Mine Workers engaged in a massive Bituminous Coal Strike in 1977, which took place during the nation’s concomitant economic and energy crisis. The President, ignoring the harsh conditions the miners were facing, invoked the emergency provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act and ordered the strikers to go back to work, which was basically a major concession to the major mining corporations. This sort of action infuriated Ted Kennedy, who sided with the miners, and would be one of the reasons why Kennedy would challenge Carter during the Democratic Party Primaries in 1980 (one of the only times in US history when a sitting US President had to fight a primary, to secure his party’s nomination to run for a second term). In any event, the government issued an injunction ordering the miners to go back to work, but the Federal Courts refused. Carter then engaged in a massive argument with the federal courts, which he lost. The miners then escalated their strike and committed a series of unofficial, unsanctioned strikes, called Wildcat strikes, which ticked Carter off even more.
Eventually, the unions lost and had to make major concessions and they were eviscerated. The unions were effectively bankrupted by the strike and union benefits and pensions took a major hit. They never forgave Carter and this played a role in his poor showings, both in the state and nationally. Even though he won the state, he only won it by the slightest of margins. He and Reagan had equal evangelical Christian credentials. I think this comes down to the fact that Reagan never discussed economics, whereas Carter took a major hit for siding with managers.
In 1984, West Virginia went for Reagan, like almost every other state in the country. That said, it was still represented by Democrats in the Senate. I believe that Reagan’s jingoism and social conservatism are what motivated West Virginians, like almost every other state in the nation, to vote for him. I think it had very little to do with his economic philosophy, which most people never really understood to begin with.
That said, most people understand and support liberal economic philosophies, if a credible individual presents them in the proper manner.
In 1988, West Virginia switched back to the Democratic Party and voted for Michael Dukakis. Indeed, it was the only southern state to do so, despite the fact that Dukakis was an ethnic white, olive-skinned Greek Orthodox, super liberal from Massachusetts. Remember, West Virginia is a highly socially conservative state with an exceedingly large evangelical Christian, northern European population. They seemed to have awoken from the Reagan years, realized that their jobs had suffered during the 1980s and that unions needed more protection. They saw Dukakis as a man who stuck-up for the working classes and they voted for him, plain and simple. Economic interests can easily trump religious sentiment and social conservatism. The 1988 election is a clear case in point.
Bill Clinton won West Virginia by good margins in both 1992 and 1996. In 1992, Clinton won 48.41% of the West Virginia vote. Bush won 35.39% and Perot won 15.92%. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 51.51% of the state, compared to Dole’s 36.76%, leading by a 14.75% margin. Ross Perot won 11.26% of the vote.
Clinton’s victories in West Virginia are easily explained, despite the fact that the state voted for Reagan in 1984. As we saw, the state, despite its strong white evangelical background, was the only southern state that voted against Bush and in favor of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Furthermore, Clinton was a Southern boy with a working-class/middle-class background that West Virginians could relate to. West Virginians couldn’t stand George H. W. Bush in either 1988 or 1992, as he reeked of out-of-touch, plutocratic privilege, something the folksy common people of West Virginia have never had too much stomach for. Bob Dole fared slightly better than Bush in West Virginia in 1996, probably due to the fact that he was a farm boy from Kansas and a wounded war Veteran. We also can’t discount the fact that Ross Perot did worse in 1996, too, and this helped GOP turnout in southern and western states as well. That said, despite the stronger GOP showing in this state in 1996, Bill Clinton also did better, as he won the state by a clear majority. Indeed, the only one who did worse was Ross Perot.
Now, something major happens in West Virginia with the 2000 Presidential Elections. Al Gore, also a southerner from Tennessee, ran against George W. Bush, a Texan. Bush only carried the state by a 6.3% margin, very slight indeed. The unions and anti-big-business folks came out in support of Gore, who was pro labor, but on the other hand, many union rank-and-file also bolted and voted against Gore, due to his environmental record. The coal and mining industries are renowned for being big polluters. Coal is widely accepted as having some of the highest carbon emissions of any fossil fuel known to man, being one of the “dirtiest” forms of energy produced in the United States. Gore was well known for wanting to regulate these industries and/or shut them down if they couldn’t “clean up their act.” The mining companies launched a major propaganda campaign against Gore and warned their workers that if Gore was elected, the mines would be shut down and they would be laid off. This campaign worked and many workers, despite knowing that Gore was pro-labor, voted for Bush, because they knew he was pro-energy and pro-coal. They knew Bush, being a Republican, might also have anti-union tendencies, but they reasoned that it was probably safer to have weaker union benefits and a job, than no job at all.
This rationale, combined with Bush’s evangelical Christian credentials and the still lingering shock and horror felt by evangelicals in the wake of the Clinton sex scandal, translated into Bush winning the state.
What’s unique about the 2000 election was the fact that West Virginia had almost always sided with Democrats in Presidential elections. The only time reliably Democratic West Virginia had voted Republican were in 1972 and 1984, major blowout elections when the GOP caught the Democratic Party in a deadly pincer move of sorts consisting of (a) the Southern Strategy and (b) horribly weak Democratic candidates who were unable to make good economic arguments that appealed to the common man. These were elections when the GOP won almost every state in the country, including reliably Democratic strongholds.
2000 was different, because it was a highly contested election. What cost the state, I believe, was Gore’s environmental policy and the threat that energy workers felt from it, combined with Bush’s evangelical Christianity. Here, Bush co-opted the Democrats’ traditional strength of appealing to working class voters’ economic self interest, because Gore seemed to be violating the economic viability of these blue collar workers, whereas Bush, the Republican, in an odd reversal of roles, seemed to be their savior. Obama, in 2012, was correct to not take too extreme a position on environmental issues.
In 2004, Bush won West Virginia by 12.9%, mostly due to the fact that he was highlighting cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion, Christianity and the like, far above economic issues. His ability to paint John Kerry as a cultural outsider to folksy, down-home working class people in rural states was incredibly successful. John Kerry, a rich, dour, non-charismatic person was unable to make the essential populist economic arguments that are the only proven liberal inoculation against this sort of classic right-wing cultural demagoguery. Kerry also made arguments about coal and oil that terrified the miners of West Virginia and made them think they were losing their jobs. Again, the Democrats, rather than being seen as the savior of working-class jobs, were transformed into the destroyer of those very same jobs. As such, Kerry lost.
In 2008, John McCain won West Virginia by 13.1%, which shows a slight increase over the margins by which George Bush won. Indeed, West Virginia in 2008 was one of only 5 states in which John McCain fared better than George W Bush in 2004. During the Democratic Primary in the state, Obama lost by 40% to Hillary Clinton, which most people equate to his lack of Southern roots, his perceived coldness, aloofness, professorial demeanor, and possibly even the racism of the white blue-collar voters in the state. This last factor cannot be underestimated, because the same criticisms of aloofness and professorial demeanor were also hurled at Hillary Clinton by her opponents, so using it to distinguish Obama from Clinton made no sense. That said, Hillary Clinton did spend a large portion of her adult life in Arkansas and had an intimate understanding of rural white folk-culture and she put this to good use in the primary.
Although Obama lost the state, he still managed to win the Presidency. This is unique, historically speaking, because he is the first Presidential candidate to win the White House without capturing West Virginia, since Woodrow Wilson in 1913. The question remains, though, whether the Democrats would have won the state had Hillary Clinton won the primary. This may not really matter in the long term, but it is interesting in terms of ascertaining political cause and effect. Are West Virginians really voting for the Republican candidates for the reasons they are saying, or is it something else? Are cultural issues really trumping economic issues? Or are the reverse economic arguments that the GOP is employing, by scaring people into believing that the Democrats will cause job-loss, the primary reasons they are winning in states like West Virginia?
This is interesting because the Democratic Party has a variety of planks that deal with different industries in variety of ways. Democratic environmental policy regarding coal and oil clearly differs from Democratic Party tariff and subsidy proposals regarding the auto industry. Regardless, the GOP is employing the same categorical scare tactics against union workers, regardless of the differences between these industries. We need to see more clearly what is going on, what arguments are being used and how, specifically, people are responding to them, so that we may utilize the most effective rebuttals and inoculations. Again, the Republicans may very well learn from this victory and stage a comeback, by becoming a more inclusive party, by appealing to more Hispanics. If that happens, then the Democrats may have to adjust by increasing their appeal among working class white voters. And this may be done by addressing the concerns of certain key union-dominated industries and economic sectors, such as coal, mining and the auto-industry in the correct manner.
The 2012 election results are still being processed for West Virginia, but it seems that Romney won the state by 65%. Many are saying that this is because of race. I don’t think it is. There is still a radical labor movement in the state and people there couldn’t have become that much more racist since 2008, where he only lost the state by 13%. My belief is that his posititon on the oil pipeline from Canada made him appear weak on domestic energy issues, and this allowed the right-wing to scare unions and working class voters into thinking that his “green credentials” threatened their livelihood. Again, it didn’t matter in this election. But Democrats still need to do more to win this group, if they want to stay competitive in the future.
The Republicans won’t be the party of old white men forever. And as they move toward the center, both parties will need platforms and policies that appeal more evenly to all the nation’s demographic and cultural groups.
If anything, this study is also useful, because it can more clearly and cleanly show cause and effect in regard to national political rhetoric, because you are able to focus on a single demographic group. One is thus able to see how the Democrats can nullify racism and religious fundamentalism, by appealing to working class and middle class economic concerns. One can see how Republicans have tried to nullify these Democratic efforts by downplaying their plutocratic loyalties and by focusing wholeheartedly on hot-button cultural issues. One particular issue that becomes apparent from a study of West Virginia, one that I never considered before, is how the Republicans are able to win white working class voters through direct appeals to their economic self-interest, namely, by invoking the spectre of radical left-wing environmentalism as a threat to energy and manufacturing sector jobs. We see how this played a role in Bush’s victory in West Virginia in 2000 and 2004, not to mention Romney’s in 2012.
While race and racism continue to be a factor in American political combat, I believe that this will be less so in the future, as future, more tolerant generations come of age. That said, we will always have poor folks working in coal mines (and other energy sectors) at least for the foreseeable future. We need to find ways of minimizing Republican gains on issues such as these, and ensure that Democrats will always be seen as job creators, despite our environmental concerns.