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West Virginia Used To Be A Solid Democratic State... When Will They Come Back?


What's wrong with the West Virginia Democratic Party?

When I was a kid, I kind of recollect Arkansas and West Virginia being the two most Democratic states in the country. Before I was born, both had voted for FDR all 4 times he ran.


1932-

Arkansas- 86.3%

West Virginia- 54.5%

1936

Arkansas- 81.8%

West Virginia- 60.6%

1940

Arkansas- 78.4%

West Virginia- 57.1%

1944

Arkansas- 69.9%

West Virginia- 54.9%


And that Democratic winning streak— with very few interruptions— just kept coming out in these two states:

1948

Arkansas- Truman won with 61.7%

West Virginia- Truman won with 57.3%

1952

Arkansas- Adlai Stevenson won with 55.9%

West Virginia- Adlai Stevenson won with 51.9%

1956

Arkansas- Stevenson won again with 52.5%

West Virginia- Eisenhower won with 54.1%

1960

Arkansas- JFK won with 50.2%

West Virginia- JFK won with 52.7%

1964

Arkansas- LBJ won with 56.1%

West Virginia- LBJ won with 67.9%

1968

Arkansas- George Wallace won with 38.9% (Nixon and Humphrey with about 30% each)

West Virginia- Humphrey won with 49.6% (to Nixon’s 40.8%)

1972 turned them both into swing states that were transitioning red

Arkansas- Nixon won with 68.9%

West Virginia- Nixon won with 63.1%

1976

Arkansas- Jimmy Carter won with 65.1%

West Virginia- Jimmy Carter won with 58.1%

1980

Arkansas- Ronald Reagan won with 48.1% (to Carter’s 47.5%)

West Virginia- Jimmy Carter won with 49.8% (to Reagan’s 45.3%)

1984

Arkansas- Reagan won with 60.5%

West Virginia- Reagan won with 55.1%

1988

Arkansas- George HW Bush won with 56.4%

West Virginia- Michael Dukakis won with 52.2%

1992

Arkansas- Bill Clinton won with 53.2%

West Virginia- 48.4% to Bush’s 35.4%

1996

Arkansas- Bill Clinton won with 53.7%

West Virginia- Bill Clinton won with 51.5%


And that was the last time a Democrat won in either state. In fact, Democrats got wiped out in all 6 elections since then. And 2016 and 2020 were the worst. Arkansas went for Trump with 60.6% and 62.4%. West Virginia went for Trump with 68.5% and 68.6%. Democratic presidential candidates have stopped campaigning in either state.


In 2020, Trump won every single county in West Virginia. In 9 counties— Doddridge, Grant, Logan, Mingo, Ritchie, Tyler, Webster, Wirt and Wyoming— Trump won over 80% of the vote. As recently as 2000, Al Gore won Logan, Mingo, Webster and Wyoming counties.


On Sunday, Richard Eskow wondered if the Democrats could ever reclaim West Virginia. Now that the state Democrats have adopted an updated version of FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights (only the 3rd state party to have done so), it may not be as far-fetched as it looks. He focused on McDowell County, the poorest county in the state. These are the McDowell County results for the winner in the last half dozen elections:

  • 2020- Trump 78.9%

  • 2016- Trump 74.6%

  • 2012- Romney 62.8%

  • 2008- Obama 53.3%

  • 2004- Kerry 61.7%

  • 2000- Gore 66.3%

Coastal journalists view rural people as an alien species – that is, when they think of them at all. When they cover them they sound like amateur entomologists pondering the consciousness of bugs under glass. Snake-handling features prominently in their coverage, even though it’s only practiced in a tiny handful of mostly informal churches.
According to the media narrative, in 2016 the reptile-loving hillbillies of journalistic imagination embraced another cold-blooded creature: Donald Trump. A typical post-election photo essay on McDowell County was headlined, “This County Gives a Glimpse at the America That Voted Trump Into Office.”
Step right up, city folks! See the strange creatures with whom you share a nation!
The county’s voting results fed the media’s perennial appetite for exoticizing rural people. And yet, despite coverage like “Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Donald Trump,”[2] the picture wasn’t nearly as clear as their coverage would have it. For one thing, McDowell County’s population was 8.2 percent Black, which isn’t all that different from the national average of 12.4 percent. And yet, Black people rarely figured in their condescending, Beverly Hillbillies-themed narrative.
They got the politics wrong, too. Here’s how McDowell County voted in the 2016 primaries:
  • Donald Trump: 785

  • Hillary Clinton: 817

  • Bernie Sanders: 1,488

That’s right: the democratic socialist got more votes than Trump or Clinton by a factor of nearly two to one.
The general election results were as follows:
  • Hillary Clinton: 1,438 (less than Sanders received in the primary)

  • Donald Trump: 4,629

  • Decline to participate: 11,433

That’s a decisive victory-- for political alienation. The non-participation rate was much higher than that of the country as a whole. Only 34.7 percent of eligible voters voted in McDowell’s general election, versus 56.9 percent nationwide.
“Trump country”? Nationally, 27 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. In McDowell, that percentage was a slightly lower (if statistically insignificant) 26.45 percent.
Yes, Trump won decisively in McDowell among those who voted. But McDowell County isn’t “Trump country.” It’s “None of the Above” country.
And yet, despite the fact that Donald Trump only won the votes of about one in four voters, the county’s residents soon became the poster children for right-wing “deplorability.”
The media’s challenges didn’t begin in 2016. “Penetrating a closed, isolated society in Appalachia,” read a 2014 inside-the-news headline from the New York Times. But “closed” and “isolated” from whom? Certainly not each other. A story in the Chattanooga (TN) Times Free Press emphasizes a local initiative built on community values:
“McDowell County needed to return to the message its churches preached, locals said. Maybe it was as simple as embracing the Golden Rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The charitable side of McDowell County never seems to make the national press.
Trump screwed them afterwards, of course. Things kept getting worse: drug and alcohol deaths, suicides, rampaging addiction, and a shortage of jobs. The McDowell County Commission sued three drug companies for their role in the opioid epidemic, although few people thought anything would come of it. Nothing did— but at least they tried.

McDowell County, like the country overall, is divided. But the mainstream media prefers to see a one-dimensional caricature of the county and the state. It’s true that they don’t like elitists, which is how a lot of Democrats come across to them. But they apparently like somebody who stands up to powerful interests and doesn’t talk down to them.
Anything seems like Hail Mary for West Virginia’s Democrats right now, but the Economic Bill of Rights it’s clear, easy to explain, and is opposed by the kinds of people who are despised by everyone from left to right: billionaires and corporations.
It’s definitely worth a shot, and the results will be worth watching.

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