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.