In 1996, Bill Clinton won West Virginia by 15 points.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost West Virginia by 42 points.
This wasn’t a fluke. It was the logical conclusion of a pattern:
In case you’re wondering, this isn’t normal. States and regions change sides all the time. There are zero states that haven’t been more red than average at least once and more blue than average at least once. Huge swings from one election to the next are plenty precedented. But there’s usually a correction at some point. When the South went from blue to red, there was a lot of back and forth as the transition was happening. Not here.
With Donald Trump, the ideal candidate for West Virginia got to jump on a speeding train moving in the perfect direction. Though this is the most extreme example, the same thing is happening throughout a swath of the country with Appalachian roots. The states are either part of Appalachia itself, or the diaspora. Many of their voters are of Scots-Irish decent. This is the part of the country that made up Andrew Jackson’s base in the 1820s and 1830s.
As you can see, Oklahoma was already pretty red in the mid-1990s. Arkansas was mildly red in the 1980s, and only favored Democrats the next decade because their governor was on the ballot. Regardless, each state is at least a legit 20 points redder than it was. We’ll explore why this is and why the change is so much more extreme in West Virginia.
2016 Results: Donald Trump 68.50%, Hillary Clinton 26.43%, Gary Johnson 3.22%, Jill Stein 1.13%
In the modern era it’s hard for a major candidate to drop below a quarter of support, so Joe Biden probably won’t do worse. There’s technically a little room for Trump to do better, and if he does while losing ground nationally, the seven election streak (beginning in 1992) of West Virginia becoming redder each time will continue.
2020 Polls: We don’t have much to work with. The most recent survey is from January and considered Bernie Sanders along with Biden against Trump. Biden trailed by 34, Bernie by 36, with a few undecideds. Given that both Democrats are better suited to West Virginia than Hillary, but Trump was still at 65% shows how high the president’s floor is.
Key Historical Shifts: West Virginia has always been one of the very poorest states in the country. It currently ranks 50th. Education has never been a thing. The state is 49th in percentage of residents with graduate degrees. Always very white (93% now), always very non-Catholic (currently 44th per capita at 5%)
There are states who have lost a high paying manufacturing base. Not West Virginia. The coal mines are mostly closed, but historically they didn’t pay well. Most of the steel was across a river in Ohio or Pennsylvania. There weren’t any auto factories to close.
Many states have absorbed a lot of foreign immigrants since ethnic/nation of origin restrictions were loosened in the mid-1960s. Not West Virginia. Many states have seen millions of Americans migrate in from elsewhere in the country. Not West Virginia. Many states now have a major metro area with more than a million people. Nope, not even close.
Given the consistency of West Virginia, seeing the state move between parties over time gives us a good idea of how the Democrats and Republicans have altered their positioning.
Phase One (1864-1872): Reconstruction Era. West Virginia was carved from Virginia, when it didn’t feel like following the rest of the state out of the Union. As such, it heavily favored Abraham Lincoln over Copperhead George McClellan in 1864. While voting Republican again in the next two elections, the margins shrank, to the point where it was a little blue in 1872.
Phase Two (1876-1936): Swing state. In 16 elections, West Virginia gave Democrats more support than the rest of the country did 8 times, Republicans 8 times. In half of the elections, the state was within 3 points of the national popular vote. There were a few years where there was a noticeable blue tint, but it never lasted to the next contest. In all but 1880 and 1916, West Virginia picked the national popular vote winner. I could go on, but think you get the point.
Phase Three (1940-1996): Blue, though not absurdly so. States that weren’t previously blue responded to FDR a couple different ways. Some like Indiana and Nebraska gave him a grudging shot early, but as he stayed in office rediscovered their Republican roots, voting against him in 1940 and 1944. Others like Rhode Island and West Virginia began by skeptically voting for him and became fans over time, giving him more support than the average state by 1940.
In West Virginia’s case, it inaugurated a whole new era. While a Republican (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan) could win the state as part of a national landslide, only in 1972 did the Democrat (George McGovern) fail to beat his national average there. By 1996, the only time West Virginia had given a Republican a truly big margin was 1864. The pending shift wasn’t visible.
Phase Four (2000-Present): Getting increasingly red. Everyone remembers the ballot chaos in Florida from the 2000 election. But a couple hours before Al Gore retracted his concession, the network anchors were busy talking about George W. Bush’s surprise win in West Virginia. To that point, the only time a Republican won the state without fairly convincingly winning the country was 1916. It just didn’t register that it wasn’t in Gore’s column. And it wasn’t that close.
As you saw above, that was just the start. Even as Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma were becoming increasingly red, West Virginia caught them and passed them. While the other states have plenty of indicators for the modern GOP (below average income, below average higher education), it’s not as extreme, and there’s more economic vitality. Tennessee for example, has a major metro area (Nashville) that has attracted plenty of new residents from elsewhere in the country.
Several of the states (Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas) have much higher percentages of non-white voters. While the demographics say they should be voting red, it’s not supposed to be by the same percentages as West Virginia.
The transition is complete. From New Deal Democrats to Trump Republicans. West Virginia didn’t change. The parties did.
How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: If he were running against a Mitt Romney-style Republican instead of Trump, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Biden get near 40%. Hillary was extremely unpopular, in part because of comments she made about the state needing to move on from coal. West Virginia also didn’t like Barack Obama at all. He lost the 2008 Democratic primary to Hillary. In 2012 some random guy got 40% of the primary vote against him. Yes, this was a racial thing, at least partially.
So, by not being Obama (even if he was his wingman) or Hillary, Biden stands to do at least a little better. He’s polling ahead of 2016 with less educated white voters and as we’ve covered, that’s most of the state.
How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Result: Not very easily. He won by 42 points.
Forecast: No drama or surprises. If Biden can lose by 28 or 32 instead of 40+ it will at least stop the Democrats’ continued slide here and offer hope for some future populist on the left. It’s going to take more than one or two elections, but every state eventually reverses itself. Even when the state doesn’t change.