Alex Massie

West Virginian Exceptionalism

Text settings
Comments

A while back, in the aftermath of Senator Robert Byrd's death, Jonathan Bernstein looked at West Virginia's unusual shift from a state that, in Presidential elections, tended to be more Democratic than national trends to being more Republican than national trends might warrant. I think this is interesting since it allows one to look at some of the ways in which the Republican and Democratic parties have changed over the course of the last several Presidential elections. As Bernstein wrote:

Nate Silver has this well-organized in a post way back in April, 2008, showing how each state compares to the national results.  What he shows is that West Virginia was more Democratic than the nation as a whole in every election but one from 1948 through 1996, deviating only in the Nixon reelection landslide in 1972.  Silver groups 15 southern and border states together, so it's easy to compare where WV lies within that group (the 11 confederate states and WV, OK, KY, and MO).  At the beginning of the period, West Virginia is in the middle of that region.  In 1952, it's the 7th-most Democratic of the 15 states, trailing Solid South states such as Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.  By 1964, however, West Virginia has stayed solidly Democratic, while the rest of the region has flipped -- Johnson does better in West Virginia than in any other southern or border state.  That continues right up through the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s; in Bill Clinton's reelection, West Virginia is second only to Arkansas in pro-Democratic tilt.

And then, suddenly, it's a Republican state.  In the two Clinton elections, West Virginia was seven and then six points more Democratic than the nation as a whole; in the two George W. Bush elections, it was seven and then ten points more Republican than the nation, and McCain carried West Virginia by 13 points in 2008.  That kind of shift is rare...in fact, it's possible to construct a rule that fits WV but no other state over the elections covered in Silver's chart (at least three elections with at least a +5 tilt to one party compared to the nation, followed by at least three with at least a +5 tilt to the other party). 

This is, as he says, unusual (though New Jersey may have been, in Presidential elections anyway, been moving in the opposite direction) but not, I hazard, inexplicable. That is, I'd offer these reasons as potentially contributing factors:

Candidates*: It's noteworthy that Nixon bucked the trend when he was up against George McGovern and that the Democrats who've subsequently fared worst in WV are Gore, Kerry and Obama. None of them, whatever their other merits, had much in the way of the common touch  - at least not when appealling to the white-working class. Gore's hostility to fossil-fuel sponsored energy could hardly be expected to play well in a coal mining state (cf Kentucky) while the increasing importance the Democratic party has placed on global warming (and Republican poo-pooing of the issue) might have played a part in shifting WV opinion against the party.

Relatedly, the impression, fair or not, that the Democrats were the party of Ivy League elites can't play well in a state without any leading university** of its own (sorry Mountaineers) and which remains poor, relatively isolated from the rest of the country (no leading airports for instance) and acutely aware that it's filled with the kind of folk often disparaged as poor, white trash. (Relatedly, this is something that Ross Douthat's latest column touches upon.)

Clinton may have been a Democrat but he was poor, white trash himself (despite Georgetown and Yale Law) and anyway had a gift for seeming all things to all men (and quite a few women too). Bubba could talk to West Virginia without seeming to patronise West Virginia. Gore never managed that and nor did Kerry or, really, Obama either.

LBJ could do it and that was back in a different era anyway. WV is an interesting place because it is Appalachian but not quite southern. That is, the historic memory of WV as a free state in the Civil War era may have helped LBJ too but thereafter the Democratic party's embrace of affirmative action can, from a West Virginian perspective, be seen or at least portrayed as working against the interests of the white working class.

Equally, the perception that the Democratic party is less interested in or less robust about national security makes the party's presidential candidates less attractive in places such as West Virginia where the military is one of the primary means of self-advancement and in which, for that matter, military service is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. George W Bush may not have had a stellar military record and nor was he born in the poor-house but he talked in terms that were easily understood and that suggested he could be considered one of "us". Then there's religion...

Clearly, there are contradictions here: WV didn't hammer Clinton for avoiding the draft just as it didn't honour Kerry for his service. Then again Clinton, thanks to his political skills, could get away with being a New Democrat too. Put it this way: Reagan beat Mondale by 11 points in WV in 1984 but I bet he'd have beaten Gary Hart by 20.

These days, however, the Democratic party is perceived to be the cosmopolitan party. That makes them a tougher sell, at the Presidential level, in relatively homogenous states such as West Virginia (which is 95% white and in which no city has a population of more than 60,000). I suspect that Labor's weakening has also played a part in this process just as Labor's embrace of comprehensive immigration reform may have hurt the Democrats in WV Presidential elections.

Fundamentally, however, West Virginia seems a particularly virulent example of the impact the Culture Wars have had on American politics. That is, the shift to a politics frequently predicated on "values" and appearances and less on matters of policy or even economic interest. I don't assume that West Virginians voting for George W Bush or John McCain with unusual enthusiasm - relatively speaking - are doing so because they endorse tax cuts for millionaires. Rather it's because when they consider themselves abandoned by both parties they'll vote for the one that at least seems to speak or appreciate "their" language. It is, in its own way, another branch of identity politics. (Not that the GOP has been blind to the political upside in pandering to West Virginian economic concerns either. The 2002 steel tariffs, grotesque as they may have been, were a matter of pure politics.)

Most of all, however, West Virginia's journey from unusually Democratic to unusually Republican leaves one to ask whether, as a Presidential rather than Congressional level, doing disproportionately well in West Virginia is, in the longer-term, good for longer-term Republican prospects. The things that make West Virginia a demographic and cultural outlier right now are some of the things that help the GOP prosper in WV. But WV doesn't "look like" America any more and thus there may be a sense in which one could argue that WV could be a harbinger for the Republican party's long-term prospects. That is, once the GOP ceases to do disproportionately well in West Virginia it may be better placed, all other things being equal, to do better in the rest of the United States too.

(The corollary to this, of course, is that the Democratic party needs to, or at least should, do more to remember that the white working class still matters too. What's the Matter with Kansas? treated them as rubes and, in turn, helped alienate working class voters in the arc stretching from West Virginia down and west to Oklahoma.)

*1988 was a partial exception. Dukakis won West Virginia (but only by 5 points) and, in any case, he was running against the most patrician Republican the GOP has nominated in decades.

**Only 17% of West Virginians have a university degree and it is, by some measures anyway, the third poorest state in the Union.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Comments
Topics in this articlePolitics