Clinton’s WVa. defeat in context

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West Virginia welcomes Pres. Barack Obama in 2015. (NPR photo)

 

A lot of hay was made over Hillary Clinton’s big loss to Bernie Sanders in yesterday’s West Virginia primary. Especially the contrast between this year and 2008, when Clinton took 67 percent of the vote over Barack Obama’s 25 percent.

The Washington Post put it this way:

Once a Clinton stronghold, West Virginia’s political preference has shifted dramatically since she won by a landslide against Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.

Sanders himself, in a victory speech delivered in Salem, Oregon, last night hyped the contrast between Clinton’s support in 2008 and 2016:

This is a state, West Virginia, where Hillary Clinton won by more than 40 points against Barack Obama in 2008.

West Virginia is a working-class state and like may other states in this country, including Oregon, working people are hurting and what the people of West Virginia said tonight … is that we need an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%.

Maybe that’s what voters in West Virginia were saying, including the one third of Sanders supporters who told exit pollsters that in a general election contest between he and Trump they’d cast their ballot for the demagogue billionaire. But maybe the size of Clinton’s win in 2008 is far less meaningful than anyone cares to acknowledge.

So let’s put Clinton’s comparative numbers in context.

In 2008 Clinton had a singular advantage over her primary opponent: She was running against a black man. In that contest 2 in 10 white West Virginia voters said race mattered in their vote, second only to Mississippi. And 8 in 10 of those backed Clinton.

As the New York Times reported, Clinton wasn’t especially shy about playing to that sentiment:

The voter surveys showing a strong racial component to the West Virginia voting suggest that Mr. Obama would still face pockets of significant Democratic resistance if he does become the party’s first black nominee. … Obama supporters accused Mrs. Clinton of playing the race card last week when she explicitly said that she had more support among “white Americans” than he did.

Animus toward Obama in West Virginia is so great that in 2012, a convicted felon serving time in a Texas penitentiary won 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. A consequence of Obama’s environmental policies, for sure, but also his race.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that the scale of Clinton’s defeat in West Virginia is shocking only if you fail to put into its proper context. Clinton, as The Guardian points out, is running on a pledge to aggressively push the hated Obama’s environmental policies.

That’s a recipe for defeat in West Virginia even while its probably an asset elsewhere in the country. And just as in 2008, when Clinton’s landslide in West Virginia couldn’t change the inevitable trajectory of an eventual Obama win, Sanders’ victory won’t change the outcome either. The Guardian’s summary nails it:

Sure, coal country doesn’t love her. Sure, voters there don’t believe she simply “misspoke” when talking of her clean-energy plan. Sure, states with a 91% white electorate like West Virginia don’t love her.

She doesn’t need them to.