CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For his first rally since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump ventured on Thursday to West Virginia, a state that believed in him when few did.
When Trump flirted with running for president during the last cycle, an April 2011 poll in West Virginia found him tied for first place with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who had won the state’s nominating convention three years earlier. When Trump announced his 2016 candidacy last June and dominated social-media conversations, his highest rate of engagement on Facebook was in West Virginia. When the race still had three Republican candidates, polls showed that Trump was poised to win at least 60 percent of the vote in the state’s primary, which will be held Tuesday.
“There’s always been something about West Virginia,” Trump said Thursday night after taking the stage to the tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
West Virginia’s statewide demographics mirror those of the down-on-their-luck towns and cities where Trump has hosted many of his campaign rallies. The state has a median annual household income of $41,576 — nearly $12,000 less than the national figure — and more than 18 percent there live in poverty, one of the highest rates in the country. In March, the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent while the nation’s was at 5 percent. For those who are employed, wages are often stagnant.
Added on top of those economic frustrations is mounting distrust of the federal government, career politicians and political parties. A heroin epidemic with a death toll that’s among the nation’s worst. A collapsing mining economy and a population largely lacking college degrees.
“He’s the one that cares about us. He’s the only one out of everybody — Democrat or Republican — that really cares about us,” said Carol McClurg, 74, who lives in coal country and drove about two hours to the rally with her 25-year-old grandson. “West Virginia is big with coal; that’s our heartbeat. I think he really cares about us, no matter how crazy he gets.”
Those who have voted for Trump represent the full economic spectrum, and the median income of a Trump voter is actually higher than voters who picked Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. But Trump holds many of his rallies in places with depressing economic indicators, which he often reads aloud. Working-class voters, some of them former Democrats, have become the face of Trump’s movement, and they have helped fuel his unexpected trajectory to the nomination — and could be a force in the general election.
For voters like these, Trump promises to bully companies into bringing jobs back from overseas and to threaten massive tariffs on foreign-made products — putting him to the left of not only many members of his party but also to the left of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. He promises to lower taxes, cut wasteful government spending and get rid of cumbersome regulations, especially those on the environment. He promises to kick out illegal immigrants and build a wall along the Southern border so they can’t sneak back in. He promises to make the country so rich and create so many jobs, that few Americans will still need social safety net programs such as food stamps.
“What we hear the media say is that he’s an instrument of hate, he’s an instrument of anger,” said Mike Stuart, a former state GOP chairman who is one of Trump’s West Virginia chairmen. “But here in West Virginia, we’ve been decimated by Washington policies — not only over the Obama administration but over the past several administrations. And so Donald Trump is not an instrument of anger here. He’s an instrument of hope for folks who have lost hope.”
The campaign had been planning to hold a rally here long before Trump’s two remaining GOP rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, suspended their campaigns earlier this week. So it was serendipitous that the backdrop for his first victory event — the one where he coronated himself the nominee — was held at an aging civic center in downtown Charleston before a fired-up crowd of 13,000.
“I get elected, you’re going to see what happens. It’s going to happen fast, and you’re going to be back to better than ever before,” Trump said as he accepted a hard hat from a group of miners.
More than two decades ago, coal country was Clinton country: Bill Clinton won more than 70 percent of the general-election votes in Appalachian counties in 1992. But then came year after year of coal mines closing and jobs disappearing, which many here blame on excessive regulations. Hillary Clinton has struggled in West Virginia, especially after saying at a CNN town hall, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Clinton has since said she misspoke, but she has faced a cold reception in the state ever since and is polling behind Trump in a theoretical matchup.
“We’re always fighting so many battles, we’re always fighting so many losing battles for jobs,” said West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas, who said he’s not surprised by Trump’s popularity because voters like “the brassiness and the strength.”
Hours before Trump’s personalized Boeing 757 landed in Charleston, thousands lined up in the rain outside the civic center. Huddled under an overhang was Raeann Baker, a 36-year-old who works in the insurance industry and worries that environmental regulations will soon wipe out the state’s natural gas industry that employs her husband. Nearby were two cousins in their early 20s who like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) more than Trump — but they want anyone other than a Democrat in office after seeing coal jobs in their home town disappear.
Inside, campaign volunteers handed out signs reading: “Trump digs coal.” Seats behind the stage were reserved for coal miners who showed up wearing hard hats and their work jackets.
Douglas Carter, a 40-year-old father of six, said he wanted Trump to run in 2011 and has been planning to vote for him since the day he announced. He works as a receiving manager for a contractor and has seen work dry up. His wife manages a convenience store and sees the same trickle-down problems.
“He’s a successful businessman, and I think he could get this country back on track,” said Carter, who lives in St. Albans. “He’s got more to lose than anyone of us if the country fails. He’s in it for us and not himself.”