When businessman and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took the stage in Charleston, West Virginia for a campaign event in May, the crowd was nothing short of raucous. Visiting just days before the state’s GOP primary, Trump stood before a sea of elated supporters that included several coal miners, many still wrapped in their reflective mining jackets. As denizens of Appalachia, a mountainous super region that cuts across several American states, they wanted to make clear that coal production was a major election issue for their mining communities.
Trump wasted little time addressing their concerns.
“We’re going to put the miners back to work!” Trump declared just minutes into his speech. The crowd roared, Trump smiled, and several miners frantically waved aloft signs that read “Trump digs coal.”
We’re going to put the miners back to work!
Things weren’t the same two weeks later, when Bill Clinton took the stage in Prestonburg, Kentucky, another coal mining town in Appalachia. He was there to stump for his wife Hillary Clinton, hoping to replicate the success he had in the region when he ran for president in 1996 — the last time a Democrat won West Virginia or Kentucky.
This time, the miners had a very different reaction: they booed.
The moment was a sign of things to come. Trump, a billionaire raised in luxury, crushed all comers in Appalachia, one of the nation’s poorest regions. His victory in Appalachia is sweeping, overwhelming, and nearly complete: Just 17 of the 420 counties in the region voted for someone other than The Donald during the GOP primaries, and then only just. Even more surprising was how his primary success could impact the general election. Some polls now show Trump barely trailing Hillary Clinton in head-to-head matchups in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a shift some attribute to his widespread support among Appalachian voters in both states.
It’d be easy to recast Trump’s dominance as evidence of his unique appeal, a triumphant anti-politician who could finally wrench every bit of a traditionally Democratic stronghold away from the party through the sheer force of his charisma — and possibly the presidency along with it.
But the truth is much more complicated, and arguably far more troubling for progressives. National-level Democrats have been losing Appalachia for years, primarily because candidates often don’t know how to communicate their economic message to the region’s poor, largely white denizens — or simply don’t feel they should have to.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Democrats can win back the once strongly left-leaning region, but only if they’re willing to grapple seriously with the area’s difficult economic present — and work to invite them into a very different future.
A Democratic bastion runs to the right
Appalachia’s ties to the Democratic Party go back decades — especially in West Virginia, which only voted for a Republican presidential candidate twice from 1960 to 2000 (it went red in 1972 and 1984, elections where the Republican candidate carried 49 out of 50 states). The state has also voted for a Democratic Senator every year since 1960, and consistently elected Democratic House members until 2010.
Appalachia’s ties to the Democratic Party go back decades.
Most experts agree this political partnership was birthed during the 1960 presidential campaign, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy visited the region to meet with governors and observe the infamously harsh living conditions of local citizens (at the time, indoor plumbing was a luxury). His visit eventually resulted in the creation of the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 under Lyndon Johnson, a far-reaching bill that created the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to oversee place-based policies for the impoverished area. Appalachia, which was so disproportionately poor that it earned the nickname “the Other America,” became ground zero for the War on Poverty, with billions of dollars pouring into the region over the several decades in a valiant attempt to spark economic growth.
These Democratically-led efforts were largely successful in the short term, breeding a deep appreciation for left-leaning presidents. Meanwhile, the region’s ubiquitous coalminers and steelworkers embraced unions as a mechanism for economic liberation, institutions which, in turn, generally encouraged members to support the Democratic Party.
But all that changed during the 2000 presidential election, when Democrat Al Gore lost West Virginia and most other sections of Appalachia to former president George W. Bush. This was partly because Republicans began targeting the region as an opportunity for growth, but by the time then-senator Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee in 2008, a perfect storm of economics, creeping conservatism, and outright racism accelerated the region’s embrace of the GOP.
For example, Floyd county — an Appalachian coal county in Eastern Kentucky that voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 — boasted 27,789 registered Democrats in 2008, compared to just 2,856 Republicans. Yet John McCain edged out Obama there on Election Day that year, winning 7,741 votes to 7,530. By 2012, it wasn’t even close: Mitt Romney brought home 9,784 votes there in 2012, but only 4,733 supported Obama.
The story was similar throughout the region, where 366 Appalachian counties increased their Republican share of presidential votes from 2004 to 2008. In 2012, Obama lost 10 counties in the West Virginia Democratic primary to an imprisoned felon with a ponytail, who won 41 percent of the vote statewide — a moment that was largely interpreted as a protest vote against the president. When the general election rolled around, Obama became the first presidential candidate in history to lose all 55 counties in West Virginia.
And now with Donald Trump sweeping the region as the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president, recent history could be repeating itself.
When good policies fall on deaf ears
The efforts of the Appalachia Regional Commission have shown very real gains. Appalachia’s poverty rate is still above the national average, but it has dropped significantly over the past 50 years, plummeting from 30.9 percent in 1960 to 16.6 percent in 2010.
Indeed, social safety net policies passed by Democrats are what keep many Appalachian families afloat: West Virginians are more reliant on federal aid than residents of any other state, deriving 27 percent of their personal income from unemployment, disability, medical, and welfare benefits, according to the Washington Post. As of 2014, nearly one in five West Virginians receive food stamps.
And yet, inexplicably, Appalachia is lurching rightward.
I don’t think you can trace it back to anything other than coal.
The reasons for this are complicated, but part of the blame can be placed on another dramatic shift in Appalachian life — the slow death of mining unions. The United Mine Workers of America, once a cultural constant among mountain folk, endured a series of defeats during the 1990s. Corporations such as Massey Energy successfully survived several worker strikes, all while increasing the mechanization of coal mining — moves that slowly shaved away jobs. The result was a weakened union culture that is more popular with older miners than younger Appalachians, with Republican leaders moving in to fill the cultural void once occupied by organized labor.
But neither a union nor a safety net program can address the core issue keeping many from voting Democratic. Appalachians would generally prefer not to be on government assistance in the first place — they just want their jobs in the coal industry back.
According Democratic strategists in the region, the slow, agonizing death of the coal industry is the main source of the coal country’s embrace of the GOP.
“I don’t think you can trace it back to anything other than coal,” Daniel Lowry, communications director for the Kentucky Democratic Party, told ThinkProgress.
The decline of coal is a constant point of political debate in Appalachia, where several counties still base their economies around excavating the coveted fossil fuel. It is true — as much as Democrats and environmentalists avoid saying it — that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have hurt the coal industry over the years, giving an edge to cleaner forms of energy such as natural gas. But the industry was hemorrhaging jobs long before Obama became president, and equally to blame are things such as the aforementioned mechanization of the industry, the fact that Appalachia’s coal seams may be drying up, and a worldwide decline in demand for coal, among other things.
The Republicans have done a good job of marketing the so-called ‘war on coal,’ when in fact it’s the Democrats who have worked just as hard as anyone to diversify the economy and help bring jobs to Appalachia.
Regardless, Republicans have latched on to the idea that Democrats are to blame for coal’s struggles, recasting it as the result of president Obama’s environmental policies. They often refer to White House policies as constituting a “war on coal,” and in 2014, the conservative-leaning National Review published a lengthy feature declaring Appalachia “the white ghetto,” arguing the region’s troubles are the byproduct of dependency on government welfare policies. Meanwhile, federal GOP lawmakers have actively denied the president the opportunity to offer help to the region, blocking his Appalachian aid package from even receiving a vote in Congress.
“The Republicans have done a good job of marketing the so-called ‘war on coal,’ when in fact it’s the Democrats who have worked just as hard as anyone to diversify the economy and help bring jobs to Appalachia,” Lowry said.
Even progressives in the region are susceptible to “war on coal” rhetoric, however, and are slowly forging a new kind of Democrat. In May, West Virginia Democrats selected climate change-denier and coal industry billionaire Jim Justice as their nominee for governor — receiving Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) endorsement even though he was a Republican until 2015.
When asked about the coal industry, Justice assured reporters that he will make sure the state “mines more coal … than has ever been mined before.”
Selling a progressive agenda to coal country
Although the political back-and-forth over Appalachia’s struggles has won Republican votes, the war of words has left many in the region generally dissatisfied with both parties. The sentiment was given voice in March, when U.S. News and World Report published a passionate op-ed by Michael Cooper entitled “A Message From Trump’s America.” The piece detailed the harsh living conditions in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where 23 percent of the population lives in poverty, and explained that Appalachian support for Trump emanates not from a love of The Donald, but from a deep frustration with Republicans and Democrats.
“[Trump’s] supporters realize he’s a joke,” Cooper writes. “They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.”
“To win again in the Deep South and Appalachia, the Democratic Party must recall the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Kennedy’s New Frontier by putting people to work rebuilding America, and making college free after two years of national service,” he added.
To win again in the Deep South and Appalachia, the Democratic Party must recall the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Kennedy’s New Frontier.
Democrats are, in fact, trying their best to do just that. Bernie Sanders has famously floated making college free for everyone, and both he and Hillary Clinton have extensive plans to transition Appalachian communities away from coal and invest billions of dollars into new green energy economies that would give people new jobs. Similarly, Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor of Ohio and current senate candidate in the state, published a report while working at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2015 that outlined a plan to help reinvest federal funds into struggling coal communities. By contrast, Trump and most other Republicans have no such plan, promising instead to revitalize coal communities by reducing regulation — a dubious claim, since most experts agree that the coal industry is inevitably doomed as demand for the fossil fuel reduces.
Still, such proposals are a relatively new effort among liberals. In its 11-year history, the Center for American Progress and the Center for American Progress Action Fund — the leading progressive think tank and the parent organization of ThinkProgress, which is editorially independent — has published less than a handful of reports specifically focused on Appalachia, the most recent being Strickland’s.
Democrats are also struggling to find a way to communicate their plans. While detailing her own Appalachia jobs plan in March, Hillary Clinton managed to alienate thousands of coal miners by quipping “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” The line was listed out of context, but the gaffe sparked outrage throughout the region, and may have cost her West Virginia: Clinton lost every single county on primary day, with Sanders claiming 51 percent of the vote to her 35 percent.
But Appalachian Democrats remain convinced their message is the right one, so long as it is communicated effectively.
“I think our number one goal is to get out the truth,” Lowry said. “We have to show people the facts.”
We, as Kentuckians, need to figure out how to make jobs in Eastern Kentucky.
In fact, there are some signs that Democrats shouldn’t give up on the possibility of wresting Appalachia back from the GOP — at least for one election cycle. Appalachia’s cultural issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia notwithstanding, neither Sanders nor Hillary have uniformly won the region, and Lowry pointed out that both candidates received more than 210,000 votes each in Kentucky. This means each candidate received almost as many votes as the total number cast during the Republican primary — around 230,000 — where around 82,000 supported Trump. And while The Donald received 156,245 votes in the West Virginia primary, there were still around 40,000 fewer Republican votes overall compared to Democratic primary turnout numbers.
Primary turnout numbers are a poor indicator of general election sentiment, of course. Trump was running unopposed in West Virginia, and Appalachians are unlikely to embrace a Democrat simply because they take their concerns seriously. But the region has shifted unexpectedly before, and a sustained effort by liberals to engage Appalachia could potentially put states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina back in play. Progressive activist groups such as the Moral Mondays Movement managed to attract thousands of participants in liberal Appalachian cities such as Asheville in recent years, and engagement with the region’s multitudinous faith-based groups could help reclaim some cultural capital lost amidst de-unionization.
In the meantime, Appalachia Democrats say they have no choice but to cater to the needs of their poverty-stricken neighbors, regardless of whether the national party follows suit.
“As a state, Kentuckians are proud people, and if you’re from Eastern Kentucky, you’re proud of it — it’s a beautiful place,” Lowry said. “Yet you have an economy that has been dependent on a resource that is going away. We, as Kentuckians, need to figure out how to make jobs in Eastern Kentucky.”