George W. Bush turned West Virginia red, but Barack Obama turned it scarlet. In 2008, West Virginia Democrats backed Hillary Clinton in the primary like she was a lump of coal incarnate. In 2012, an incarcerated felon pulled 41 percent of the Democratic vote in the state. And that was the Democrats.
West Virginia did not care for Barack Obama. West Virginia does not care for Barack Obama. Gallup compiles a state-by-state set of data annually, and in its data on Obama's approval rating by state, West Virginia stands out dramatically. No state has lower approval ratings for the president than West Virginia.
(The data on these maps compares each state to the national average on the metric.)
For the most part, that approval rating correlates with partisanship. The more Republican a state, the less it likes Obama, which makes sense. But West Virginia -- blue until 2000 -- doesn't fit that pattern. Nationally, it's about in the middle ground in terms of how Democrats and Republicans compare in the state.
I can read your mind. You think this is about race. No doubt that's true for some people in West Virginia -- and some people in California and Texas and Maryland and Maine. But what's happening here is probably different.
There's another of Gallup's maps where West Virginia sticks out: economic confidence.
No state had less confidence in the future of the American economy than West Virginia.
I can read your mind again: They hate Obama! Of course they're pessimistic! And again I say, it's more complicated than that.
West Virginia is also near the bottom in Gallup's index of job quality.
It is near the top in terms of states where residents have reported being concerned about money.
(North Dakota's fracking boom stands out here.)
The people of West Virginia -- largely white, mostly earning well below the national median income -- have been left behind by the improving economy since the recession, despite how slow that improvement has been. The people of West Virginia also think that Barack Obama is not doing a good job.
This is not specific to West Virginia. There are a lot of Americans, a lot of them also white and also low income, who feel as though things are not coming together for them. That concern has coalesced just as the 2016 election has arrived, and there are candidates on both sides who are poised to champion the issue.
The people who love Donald Trump love him, in part, for all of the reasons that the people who hate him hate him. He's often crass, he's indisputably wealthy, he's largely unconcerned about such niceties of campaigning as "having policy positions" or "not using swear words." What he promises to do, though, is fight. He promises to beat China and Japan and Mexico and the (non-Trump) wealthy and employers of all stripes into submission. How? By doing it, that's how.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders cannot talk about any issue without then talking about income inequality, or about how Wall Street is corrupt or about how the two are related. Like Trump, Sanders is favored by the whiter, less wealthy demographic. The demographic of which West Virginia is the extreme.
This is overly simple, of course. The 2016 election isn't simply about white people who want better jobs. But part of it is about a large population that is still feeling the effects of a tumultuous economy. That's a big enough population, it seems, to help propel Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders into unexpected position in an unexpected political year.