If you know about West Virginia’s attitude toward coal, and you also know about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) attitude toward coal, then Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential primary results might have come as a bit of a surprise.
Sanders — a staunch environmentalist pushing for more pollution regulations and a nationwide carbon tax — easily won West Virginia over his opponent Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. His win, some environmentalists said, was proof that you don’t have to be pro-coal to win in coal country.
Still, it was confusing. Coal clearly remains politically important to West Virginia voters — just look at Clinton, who has been facing backlash and protests there since her infamous March quote: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Sure, many West Virginia voters wouldn’t love Sanders’ coal policies — but they probably haven’t thought about them that much.
And yet, Sanders easily beat Clinton among West Virginia voters with coal workers in their families. Fifty-five percent of West Virginia’s Democratic voters with coal workers in their households voted for Sanders on Tuesday, while only 29 percent voted for Clinton.
So why did this happen? The West Virginia politics experts who spoke to ThinkProgress said the answer likely has less to do with widespread support for Sanders’ coal policies, and more to do with a symbolic rejection of the Obama administration’s coal policies. Many West Virginia Democratic voters see Clinton as an extension of the Obama administration — and despite the fact that Clinton’s policies are probably more pro-coal than Sanders’, voters are protesting the Obama administration’s energy agenda by voting for anybody but Clinton.
“Elections are often more about a decision to vote for stability or change than they are about specific policy proposals,” said Scott Crichlow, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “Sure, many West Virginia voters wouldn’t love Sanders’ coal policies — but they probably haven’t thought about them that much. They already know they don’t like President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s coal policies at all. And a vote against Hillary, in a state where you’ll hear about a supposed ‘war on coal’ non-stop, could very easily be meant to be a vote against the Democratic party’s energy priorities.”
Of course, there are many West Virginia Democrats who voted for Sanders based on the meat of his policy proposals. But there is evidence to support the theory that many West Virginians cast protest votes, and that those votes benefited Sanders in the end.
According to data compiled by Democratic consultant Matthew Isbell, an unprecedentedly large number of West Virginia Democratic voters — 12.7 percent across the state — voted for candidates other than Clinton and Sanders in the presidential primary. These numbers were especially high in the southernmost counties, the home of the so-called “billion dollar coalfields.” In Mingo, Logan, and Wayne counties, for example, more than 25 percent of Democratic voters cast ballots for candidates other than Clinton and Sanders. In Mingo and Logan counties, obscure candidates actually got more votes Clinton.
Other West Virginia Democrats protested by just not voting for president at all. According to Isbell, 6.2 percent of Democratic ballots across the state were blank for president. The biggest share of blank votes, he said, were in the southern coal counties.
“Clinton’s poor reputation with coal country resulted in conservative Democrats either voting for minor candidates, leaving their ballot blank, or voting for Sanders to stick it to Clinton,” Isbell wrote. “Clinton even [lost] to minor candidates combined in two coal counties, and only beating out that protest vote by unimpressive margins in many others.”
Christopher Plein, an associate professor of public administration at West Virginity University, largely agreed.
“Part of understanding West Virginia’s election results is saying that yes, there were protest votes — they were upset with Senator Clinton,” Plein said. “They see Senator Clinton closely tied to the Obama administration, which has been perceived by many as being unfriendly to the coal industry with regulation.”
Clinton’s poor reputation with coal country resulted in conservative Democrats either voting for minor candidates, leaving their ballot blank, or voting for Sanders to stick it to Clinton.
Still, Plein said, Sanders’ win was not all because of anti-Clinton sentiment. There is genuine appeal in many pockets of the state — including coal country — of an outsider, relatively anti-establishment candidate who has consistently appealed to working class people. Plus, the fact that Sanders (like Clinton) has a plan to transition coal communities to a cleaner energy economy doesn’t hurt either.
“There is this growing awareness and acceptance in West Virginia that we are entering into a post-coal economy … and the state is really facing fundamental challenges for community and economic development,” Plein said. “So a lot of what Senator Sanders is talking about does resonate authentically and genuinely with people.”
Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, has been working on transitioning coal communities in West Virginia for 20 years. She also believes people are starting to recognize that coal is on its way out, and are beginning to look to politicians — like Sanders and Clinton — who will diversify their economies.
But the cultural attachment to coal in West Virginia is still strong, and brash comments like Clinton’s — “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — still cut deep. While it may be starting to become politically appropriate in West Virginia to desire a more diverse economy, it is a lasting taboo to bash coal and the people who mine it. That, Keating said, is why so many voters have soured to Clinton, despite her apology.
“I’ve worked on these coal issues for 20 years … people got death threats [for speaking out against coal]. People got run off the roads,” Keating said. “Things are starting to shift, but power does not concede.”