West Virginia, a lightly-polled state that gave Hillary Clinton one of her biggest victories in the 2008 Democratic primary, is the latest to show evidence of white, working-class voters moving toward Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In a new West Virginia poll of 208 likely voters conducted for MetroNews, Sanders leads with 57 percent support; Clinton trails with 29 percent.
If those numbers held up in the May 10 primary, they would represent one of the primary season's most dramatic reversals. Eight years ago, West Virginia held one of the last contests, after an Obama win in North Carolina gave him an insurmountable delegate lead. Clinton, who had just won Indiana in a squeaker, suggested that "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again."
In West Virginia, she proved it, carrying every county and beating Obama by a 42-point margin. Victories like that convinced some 2016 Clinton endorsers, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), that she could win back the rural voters Obama had lost.
Yet in exit and entrance polls of the first three primary contests, Clinton has consistently lost less-educated white voters to Sanders. In Iowa, white voters who lacked a college degree went for Sanders by one point. In Nevada, those voters went for Sanders by eight points. In New Hampshire, Sanders won them by 38 points, obliterating Clinton in working-class towns she'd previously won.
Since 2008, Democrats in Appalachia have been driven into near-extinction by Republicans who marshaled voters against the Obama administration's EPA and its ballyhooed "war on coal." Just this month, the newly Republican state legislature in West Virginia passed right-to-work legislation over the Democratic governor's veto.
But neither Sanders nor Clinton has altered dramatically from the Obama approach to coal. Both candidates favor job training and financial aid for coal country, while informing workers dependent on their industry that it's incompatible with a healthy planet.
"What we have to say is, ‘Look, through no fault of your own, you’re working in an industry which is helping to cause climate change and in fact having a negative impact on the country and world,’ ” Sanders told The Washington Post last year. “What the government does have is an obligation to say: ‘We’ll protect you financially as we transition away from fossil fuel.' "
Sanders's success here -- following an August 2015 poll that showed him competitive with Clinton -- raises a question about how much of the 2008 Clinton landslide had to do with race. In exit polls that year, just 22 percent of West Virginia voters admitted that race was a factor in their decisions. They voted for Clinton over Obama by 70 points. Four years later, the incumbent president won just 57 percent in the West Virginia primary, with substantial numbers of Democrats casting protest votes for a white inmate.
This year, there are no inmates on the ballot, but plenty of populists. In the Republican race, Donald Trump enjoys a commanding 20-point lead in the West Virginia poll, 40 percent support to just 20 percent for runner-up Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).