Coal Miners Are Political Canaries

Hillary Clinton has detailed, practical plans to help Appalachia—so why aren’t voters there listening?

Coal miner Chris Steele holds a sign supporting Donald Trump outside a Hillary Clinton event in Williamson, W.V. (Paul Sancya / AP)

What can a candidate offer a town in trouble? Maybe a factory has moved away, or a big mine has gone bust. The campaign bus deposits the candidate in front of a restive crowd; someone hands over a hard hat. What does the politician promise?

If it’s Hillary Clinton on the stump, she'll talk about job retraining, new infrastructure, and better education. But if it’s Donald Trump, the answer is simple: He promises to bring jobs back, and punish those who sent them away.

This is the fundamental difference in how the two presumptive nominees approach challenges. Trump tends to focus on what he identifies as the problem—how America has been wronged and who is to blame. Jobs went overseas? End NAFTA. Worried about terror? Ban Muslims. The solution is usually simple: Just stop doing whatever the U.S. was doing before. The community will prosper.

Clinton spends more time talking about the next step. She is skeptical of trying to undo what has already been done; striking down a trade agreement will not help the millions of workers whose jobs have already moved across the border. Hence her constant emphasis on the need for new investment, be it in education or public infrastructure.

So which approach do voters prefer?

It’s been fascinating to watch the candidates campaign in the coal-rich regions of Appalachia, centered in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where there is no shortage of trouble. The number of coal miners, which has slid downhill since the mid-1980s, dropped like a rock in 2012, responding to weak global demand and cheap natural gas. John Deskins, the director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research in West Virginia, estimates the state lost about 15,000 mining jobs in the past five years, with most of the cuts concentrated in six central counties.

In better times, this was solid Clinton country. Mining jobs, though dirty and dangerous, paid well and offered stability, allowing less-educated West Virginians to enter the middle class. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger union than the United Mine Workers of America, whose members fought hard (and sometimes died) for workers’ rights and helped make the Mountain State a pro-labor stronghold and a Democratic bastion.

“It wasn’t so long ago that West Virginia was probably the most solid Democratic state in the country,” said James Green, a historian. “There are still a lot of people down there who never abandoned the union, who never abandoned the Democratic party.” Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996; Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama here in 2008.

In the recent past, voting Democratic meant voting Clinton. But not this time around. Earlier this month, West Virginians cast ballots for Sanders en masse, handing him every single county; he beat Clinton by 16 percentage points. Donald Trump, who essentially ran unopposed (and encouraged his supporters to stay home), won 77 percent of the vote. What’s more, a third of Democratic voters, barred from voting in the Republican primary, said they planned to support the New York billionaire in November. Early polling in West Virginia shows Trump could beat Clinton by 27 points in the general election. What changed?

Clinton suffers from a number of disadvantages, including her close association with Obama, reviled in parts of Appalachia for his executive actions that have tightened standards on coal. She also had a tough opponent in Sanders, whose populist appeal often outweighs her own.

But her biggest weakness may be her rhetoric. Remember her disastrous appearance two months ago on CNN, when she pledged “to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies” out of business? That soundbite drowned out the latter half of her argument:

We’ve got to move away from coal, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy we relied on …  I am passionate about this, which is why I have put forward specific plans about how we incentivize more jobs, more investment in poor communities, and put people to work.

Clinton was alluding to her plan to wean coal communities off mining, a policy-heavy position which, as published online, runs over 2,000 words and more than a dozen bullet points. Ranging widely from improving physical infrastructure to fostering local arts initiatives, its goals are abstract and hard to visualize. Contrast that to Trump’s victory speech after the Indiana primary, when he was gearing up to campaign in West Virginia:

We’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed, and she will never let them work again.

Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.

His plan is very easy to envision: You’ll have your job back, and your old lives. This is the power of Trump’s blame-based worldview. When curing a community’s malaise is as simple as getting rid of the bad actor who caused it—in this case, Obama’s environmental regulations—the rewards feel more certain, more tangible.

“When you say, ‘I’m going to give your job back,’ that’s a very immediate solution to the problem,” said Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “If you want to find fault with Clinton’s plan or Sanders’s plan, it’s that they're really vague. People don’t have a clear vision of what their lives are going to be like in four years. It’s more abstract, and that’s why it has less resonance with voters.”

The problem is that Trump’s plan has almost no chance of success. A U.S. president has no power to stoke global demand for coal, or pump up the price of natural gas; the most Trump could do is repeal Obama’s environmental rules, and economists agree that would have a minimal effect on employment. Nonetheless, he’s carried many Appalachian counties partially on the strength of this promise. Come the general election, it seems likely his concrete promises, though shaky in reality, will continue to hold sway among communities in trouble.

How can wonky Clinton combat this? Cassese suggests following the example of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who had similarly abstract goals for the rural poor in Appalachia.  They codified them with the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funnels federal dollars to local projects. Perhaps Clinton should solidify her plans into a series of regional initiatives, tailored to various constituencies, with the goal of simply making them easier to imagine. “A personalized message is going to resonate more,” Cassese said.

But she may also find it worth her while to point out the fallacy of her opponent’s us-versus-them worldview. Yes, all of America’s problems have causes. But there’s rarely just one, and it’s often beyond the country’s power to reverse course and eliminate them.

In a recent interview, Trump said he lashes out when attacked because he wants to “unwound” himself. Does it work? Ask a psychologist. But an economist would say that a country cannot afford to do the same. If Clinton, the careful planner, wants to win, she’ll have to convince voters that looking ahead is the better bet.