Many of West Virginia’s Disgruntled Democrats Who Voted for Clinton in 2008 Are Voting for Sanders Today

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Sanders is likely to win West Virginia tomorrow for the same reasons Clinton won it in 2008.

Two weeks ago, the West Virginia primary looked to be a big deal for Republicans, with a state tailor-made for Donald Trump holding a contest with confusing delegate-selection rules. Now the GOP primary — like the one in Nebraska the same day — doesn’t much matter, and a lot of people won’t realize how much this state was going to be Trump Country even if the nomination was still undecided. It could well be one of his best states in November.

The Democratic primary, for the second straight competitive cycle, features a candidate who is heavily favored to win the nomination but will probably lose the primary. In an interesting reversal of fortune, the big 2008 winner, Hillary Clinton, is now the underdog. And most indications are that many of the very voters who preferred her to Obama, as a protest against a national party that seemed to have grown out of touch with places like West Virginia, are now voting for Bernie Sanders, mostly on protest grounds rather than agreement with his policy views. 

The most fascinating exit-poll finding from the 2008 Democratic primary is that half of voters did not plan to vote for the party’s nominee in the general election. Twenty-nine percent planned to vote for John McCain, and Clinton led among them by an astounding 77/7 margin. Self-identified moderates were 45 percent of the electorate; Clinton won them 70/24. Amazingly, self-identified conservatives were 21 percent of the electorate, and Clinton won them 60/25. 

In one of the few West Virginia primary polls taken this year, from PPP, self-identified liberals and “somewhat” liberals are leaning toward Clinton. But Sanders has a 24-point lead among the moderates who are 35 percent of likely voters, and an 18-point lead among the 22 percent who self-identify as conservative. Are these right-leaning voters feeling the Bern? Doesn’t look like it: Sanders’s favorability ratio is 21/72 among “somewhat” conservative voters and 16/75 among very conservative voters. They just dislike Clinton and what she stands for even more. And West Virginia is especially prone to protest votes, as was evidenced by the 42 percent won against Barack Obama by an obscure Texas prison inmate named Keith Judd in the 2012 primary.

The underlying reality is that West Virginia is a throwback to the era when there were a lot of self-identified conservatives and right-leaning moderates voting in Democratic primaries, especially in and near the South. As Nate Cohn points out in an interesting piece on places like this (including Oklahoma and Kentucky), party registration and closed primaries have tended to keep such voters in Democratic presidential primaries in higher numbers than in non-party registration and open-primary states where it is easier for the same people to vote in Republican presidential primaries. Race is also a factor: The parties are less polarized by race in a state like West Virginia with its small nonwhite population. But candidates that rely on heavy support from nonwhite voters — Obama in 2008, Clinton in 2016 — have little demographic traction. And a final, and very big, factor is that national Democrats drag a big anchor in states where fossil fuels are a big part of the economy. Clinton’s slim odds of an upset in West Virginia may have expired when a laid-off coal miner confronted her in front of cameras with an out-of-context quote about her pleasure that new energy technologies would force coal companies to close.

It’s unlikely that West Virginia coal miners, current or former, will naturally gravitate to Sanders, who is more of a climate-change ultra than Clinton. But he will benefit from her more immediate identification with their perceived enemies.

The dynamics, generally speaking, suggest some caution about treating West Virginia as a barometer of much of anything, whether it’s Sanders’s appeal to white working-class voters or some last-minute Clinton collapse (even in defeat, she’s likely to do much better than Obama did in 2008). As always, the Democrats’ proportional-delegate-allocation rules will limit the pledged-delegate gains Sanders might make tomorrow; West Virginia only awards 29 pledged delegates. But it should continue another Sanders winning streak that looks to continue next week in Oregon and possibly even in Kentucky, where a lot of the same dynamics will be in play and where there’s been no public polling this year.