CHARLESTON, W.V. — The American political landscape has changed a lot over the past 25 years but there is no more dramatic shift than the one that has pushed this state from deep blue to ruby red.
In the 1992 presidential election, Democrat Bill Clinton won West Virginia by a solid 13 percentage points. In November, Republican President-elect Donald Trump captured the state in a walk — winning it by more than 40 percentage points.
The forces behind that turnaround are complex. The decline of the coal industry and the changing demographics of the political parties explain part of it. But underneath that are the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains that make West Virginia what it is: picturesque, resource-rich and remote.
Coal has dominated much of the state's story, and the industry’s declines are very real. Coal production in West Virginia has declined by 30 percent since 2010 and, in that time, coal mine employment in West Virginia has fallen by more than 27 percent. Some places have been hit especially hard.
In Boone County, a short drive from Charleston, the mining cuts have shattered the economy — more than 4,000 jobs lost in the last five years, said Kris Mitchell, director of the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation. And that’s in a county with only 24,000 people.
Coal production in the county has dropped from 22,400 tons in 2010 to 8,400 in 2015.
“Whether we like it or not, this place is forever changed,” Mitchell said.
And for a lot of people, the sources of those changes are clear: Democrats and environmental regulations.
President Barack Obama’s plans to cut power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent impacted coal directly. Hillary Clinton’s electoral drubbing here was driven in part by her promise to put “a lot of coal miners” out of work in pursuit of clean energy. The words were pulled out of context, but they fit into a narrative people here knew well.
“When Obama first got into office he said he was going to bankrupt the coal industry and he did. And he done it by regulation,” said Steve Kennedy, who works at the Hobet Mine in Boone County. The site is being reclaimed and, people hope, redeveloped. “I have an 18-year-old son that graduated high school and he’s working part time at UPS now but if that doesn’t pan out, then he’ll have to leave here to find work because there’s nothing here.”
Coal’s struggles are not just about regulations, as officials and industry experts acknowledge. The booming natural gas market and automation have also played major, arguably larger, roles. Voters, however, see the Democrats as big drivers of the state’s challenges.
Since 2010, West Virginia is the only state in the union that has lost population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its November unemployment rate, 6 percent, ranked 47th out of the 50 states.
In a larger sense, though, West Virginia’s political shift is about more than economics. It’s about changes in the parties, the way the state’s population views itself and the way it views Washington. So it’s about culture as much as economics.
Ask people in and around Charleston why the state has moved away from the Democratic Party and one of the most common responses you get is that the party has become too “liberal.”
“The Democratic Party is in full retreat here now,” said Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist in Charleston who’s been in the state since 1992. Government, he said, is viewed as a tool of elites and a “malevolent force out to do us harm.” And that’s gotten worse under Obama, he added.
Trump was able to run up his massive margins, Plante said, because the president-elect knew how to talk to people in state who feel left out of the national conversation. “Trump was telling a story," he said. "Trump was saying the elites are all looking down their noses at you. ‘I’m going to stick it to the people that stick it to you.’ … West Virginia is the butt of a lot of jokes and we feel that acutely here.”
Plante’s point is better understood when you spend some time in the state and look at the demographic transformation of the Democratic Party.
West Virginia is one of the nation’s most rural states, with 77 people per square mile. Neighboring Virginia has more than 200 per square mile. There are very few drives in West Virginia that follow straight lines. Roads wind around mountains and valleys, connecting small dots on a map to one another. Its population is more than 92 percent white.
Increasingly, the Democrats have become the party of diverse, urban America. Its base is the nation’s big cities.
When all the 2016 votes are in, Hillary Clinton is likely to win the national presidential popular tally by almost 3 million votes. That’s despite the fact that she’s going to win the vote in only about 500 of the nation’s 3,100 counties. That means she won a lot of densely populated counties — places where life is very different than it is here and where the struggles of the coal industry have little personal impact.
And one of the Democrats' growing strengths, college graduates, are not a big part of West Virginia’s population. Only 19 percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree compared to nearly 30 percent nationally. A common story around Charleston, even among those who say they love West Virginia, centers on college-educated children moving elsewhere to find a job.
Is there a future for the Democratic Party in West Virginia? If there is, it may come through using government as a tool. Even as voters say they distrust Washington, people still express a strong desire for government spending — especially Trump supporters — for the roads and other infrastructure that can aid a place where private sector jobs are fleeing.
And whether residents like it or not, government makes up a big part of this state’s economic fortunes. A full 19 percent of those employed in the state work for some form of government — the public sector. That’s higher than the 14 percent who work for the public sector nationally.
There’s a history of government money flowing into West Virginia and a long list of buildings and structures named for the senator who once directed money to the state, Robert Byrd: from the Robert C. Byrd courthouses in Beckley and Charleston to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank.
And even after all the cuts in government, West Virginia still ranked ninth in federal spending per capita in 2014 at $11,973 per person. The federal funds spigot still flows more freely here than other places.
But the split between West Virginia and the Democratic Party runs deeper than all those elements. The economic divide is a demographic and cultural chasm. And sitting in Charleston, it looks all but impossible to close right now.