Eight Years Ago, Clinton Trounced Obama In West Virginia. Today, She Looks Likely To Lose
Thanks largely to the fact that she has moved left on coal, Hillary Clinton seems likely to lose today's West Virginia primary. But it will have only a minimal impact on Clinton's quest for a delegate majority.
Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama in the West Virginia primary thanks in no small part to Obama’s position on coal mining and energy policy which included a very anti-coal position. Eight years later, Clinton is fighting Bernie Sanders on the same territory and seems to be paying a political price for comments that appear to now place her to the left of where Obama was on coal eight years ago:
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With West Virginia’s economy battered by a coal industry in free fall, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is hoping that a strong showing in this state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday will keep him a force in the party’s politics by showing that his message still resonates, even though his rival, Hillary Clinton, has an almost insurmountable lead in delegates.
As Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have campaigned here in recent weeks, they have found frustrated voters who express the kinds of anxieties heard all across the country — only with a far greater degree of urgency and pain, as they see their communities wither before their eyes.
“We just don’t want to be forgotten,” said Betty Dolin, who co-owns a restaurant in Danville, about 20 miles southwest of Charleston, where customers tucked into hearty meals like meatloaf and country fried steak with gravy.
She pointed out the empty tables that would once have been filled. “We can’t have coal? Bring us something else,” she said. “And I don’t mean job training. A lot of these men are too old to train for another job.”
Presidential primaries tend to bring attention to local issues as candidates move from state to state, and as the candidates have come to West Virginia to campaign, coal has been no exception.
“These communities need help,” Mr. Sanders said last week at a food bank in McDowell County. “It is not the coal miners’ fault in terms of what’s happening in this world.”
In some ways, Mr. Sanders is not a natural candidate to be courting the votes of coal miners: He is outspoken on climate change and advocates moving away from fossil fuels. But his message of economic fairness has been embraced by white, working-class voters.
Mr. Sanders has proposed legislation that would provide $41 billion to help coal and other fossil fuel workers and their communities, offering support like financial assistance and job training.
Mrs. Clinton has her own $30 billion plan to help coal miners and their communities, including a program to provide funding to local school districts to help make up for lost revenue.
But what people here bring up is a comment she made about coal workers in March, when she said during a televised forum, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She was talking about providing opportunity through clean energy, and she emphasized that coal miners must not be left behind, but the sound bite was a damning one.
When Mrs. Clinton visited Mingo County last week, she was met with chants of “Go home!” from protesters. At a round-table event, Bo Copley, a 39-year-old father who had lost his job in the coal industry, told her, “I just want to know how you can say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend.”
Mrs. Clinton called her comment a “misstatement” and expressed regret. But it offended voters in struggling coal communities, and a candidate for West Virginia’s Supreme Court even used it in a campaign ad.
“A lot of people that I know are laid off, and you know that had to hurt the people,” said Janet White, 80, a librarian whose husband was a coal miner.
Today’s primary comes at the same time that West Virginia’s economy is being battered by a number of factors, all of which work against the coal industry that has been the state’s economic backbone for a long, long time:
In the last quarter of 2011, West Virginia had about 24,700 coal mining jobs; by the last quarter of 2015, that number had fallen to about 14,500, a decline of more than 40 percent, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The industry has suffered because of a combination of factors, and a slew of coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection.
The rise of hydraulic fracturing has caused a boom in natural gasproduction, driving down prices and prompting electric utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. A decade ago, coal was the source of about half of the country’s electricity generation; now, its share is about one-third, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Tougher environmental regulations have also taken a toll — the Obama administration has pushed to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and President Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia — as has a decline in demand for coal exports.
“It’s a perfect storm of those three factors coming together at about the same time,” said John Deskins, the director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. So far in 2016, coal production in West Virginia is down by more than a third compared with 2015, according to federal data.
Polling has been limited in West Virginia in advance of today’s primary, but the current RealClearPolitics average shows Bernie Sanders with a 6.0 point lead. This suggests that Sanders is likely headed not only for a win, but for one better than what the polls are showing. Given the economic state of West Virginia, and the politics surrounding the coal issue, this is hardly surprising.
West Virginia has long been one of the nation’s most economically distressed states, especially in the Appalachia region where the majority of the coal mining takes place, but matters seem to have become particularly acute in recent years thanks to what clearly seems to be the long-term decline of the coal mining industry. Thanks to the factors cited above, as well as a a host of others, poverty has become a far bigger problem in the state than it ever was before and economic opportunities even for people not directly involved in the coal industry seem to be drying up. Given that, it isn’t surprising that Bernie Sanders seems to be finding an audience there, or that Clinton is paying a political price for remarks that appear to some to indicate that her policies will be targeting the coal industry for even more pain. In essence then, the 2016 Democratic primary is a reversal of the situation in 2008 when Obama was perceived as being the one targeting coal and Clinton spent her time running to Obama’s right, something she did several times throughout that long fight eight years ago. Now, with Bernie Sanders lasting much longer than many suspected, she finds herself pulled to the left, with the result being that West Virginia, once a reliably Democratic state in Presidential elections, has gone with the Republican candidate in every Presidential election since 2000 and will likely do so again this year.
As for today’s primary, I think we can expect Sanders to score a win over Clinton, perhaps even by a wider margin than the polls are indicating. However, as has been the case with many of Sanders’ recent victories, it will have at best a minimal impact on the delegate count and Clinton’s march toward the 2,328 delegates she needs to win a majority. There is also a Republican primary in West Virginia today, as well as a contest in Nebraska, but with all of the candidates except Donald Trump having dropped out of the race they hardly matter except to the extent they will put Trump closer to achieving the 1,237 delegate majority he will need to officially clinch the nomination. At this point, that’s just a matter of time.