In the 2008 Democratic primary, Appalachia was the heart of Clinton country.
Hillary Clinton did better against Barack Obama in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas—her longtime home state—than anywhere else in the nation. She captured more than two-thirds of the Democratic vote in Kentucky and West Virginia in May of that year, landslides that gave her campaign a late jolt and enough momentum to stay in the race for the duration of the primaries.
Clinton returned to Kentucky on Monday for the start of a two-day bus tour through Appalachia, and her strength there eight years ago now seems hard to fathom—even to her. The white, working-class voters that embraced her message of resilience in 2008 have deserted her for Bernie Sanders in many primaries in 2016; she has relied instead on the African American and Latino voters who preferred Obama in 2008. Clinton has won the cities, but Sanders has trounced her in rural America.
West Virginia Democrats vote on May 10 and Kentucky holds its primary a week later. Neither are must-win states for Clinton—not in the primary, in which she has a commanding delegate lead, and not in the general election, where the last Democrat to win electoral votes in the Appalachian states was her husband. The voters there are predominantly white, culturally conservative, and hard-hit economically by the loss of jobs in the coal and steel industries and as a result of outsourcing. In other words, they are Donald Trump’s base of support, and a demographic that he’ll need as the likely Republican nominee this fall in the larger and more competitive states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to the north.