Wednesday, May 14, 2008

West Virginia Primary Results

With Senator Clinton’s massive win in West Virginia yesterday, it’s easy to gloss over the numbers. In going through the county by county results this morning, one part of the state really jumped out at me. Deep in the heart of coal country, in the southwestern part of the state and nestled on the border with Kentucky and close to southeastern Ohio, a cluster of counties gave Clinton numbers well beyond what she achieved statewide. In Wayne, Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Wyoming, and Mingo counties, Obama received 14%, 13%, 13%, 11%, 11%, and 8%(!) respectively. The last county really jumped out at me. Not knowing a whole lot of details about this area, I thought I’d explore. Here’s how we might describe it.

Like the rest of the state, this region is overwhelmingly white. The African American percentages in each county are: Wayne--.13%; Boone--.65%; Lincoln--.17%; Logan—2.6%; Wyoming--.12%; and Mingo—2.3%. Economically, each county’s median family income is below the state average, with the exception of Boone County, which has a median family income of about $32,000. Remember, also, that West Virginia's median income is third lowest in the country, so this area is extremely poor. Given this demographic profile, I guess we might be surprised that Obama did as well as he did, all things considered. If we were to identify an area that seems to define Appalachia, especially as its political behavior is being discussed, this would be it. These are counties that are heavily rural, geographically isolated, and economically depressed.

Looking at their political behavior over time, we see a bit more diversity, although this is a pretty solidly Democratic region, especially at the local level. Mingo County has been consistently Democratic, only voting Republican in the landslides of 1972 and 1928. Boone has also been strongly Democratic, only going for the Republicans in ’72, ’20, and ’16. Wayne has gone Republican the last two elections, plus ’84, ’72, ’56, and ’28. Wyoming County voted Republican in ’04 and ’72. It was solidly Republican prior to the New Deal realignment upon which it consistently began to vote Democratic. Lincoln also went Republican in ’04 and ’72, but did as well in ’20, ’28, and ’44. Finally, Logan County has been the most Democratic, only voting Republican in 1928.

Boone County is the largest coal producing county in the state (see rankings here), producing more than double any other county. It, and its neighbors, as such has played an instrumental part in the labor movement throughout U.S. history. Boone, for example, gave Socialist candidate Eugene Debs 13% of the vote in 1912, double his national average. Neighboring Logan County was the site of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in American labor history.

We should note that Obama essentially ceded this contest to Clinton and never really campaigned in West Virginia. Given the demographics, one wonders how much he could have caused his numbers to improve had he spent time or resources in the state. Probably not much. Interestingly, these counties fall within the third congressional district, represented since 1976 by Nick Rahall. Congressman Rahall endorsed Senator Obama well before the primary.

Also from West Virginia yesterday, reminiscent of an earlier post of mine about electing judges statewide, the state's top Supreme Court judge got tossed in the Democratic primary. It's generally not a good idea to be photographed with the head of one of the state's biggest energy companies--who has business before the court--on the French Riviera.

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