With hindsight being 20/20, the minute after Barack Obama finished his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Hillary Clinton should have been on the phone to party leaders in West Virginia, setting the wheels in motion to allow the state to move its primary up in the calendar.
The moment it became clear that a new star had been born in the national stratosphere that she alone was supposed to inherit, Senator Clinton should have chartered a plane to Wheeling or Charleston or Grafton to rally “her people” -- lower-income, blue-collar, rural voters hit hardest in the bad economic times and the most willing to accept her ruthless campaign style of never-say-die fighter—to pave the coal-road to the White House.
If West Virginia had held its primary back on February 12 with its motherland, Virginia, this 67-26 shellacking would have cracked the procession of 11 straight Obama victories and provided Clinton with early firepower to highlight Obama’s difficulty wooing critical sections of traditional Democratic voters. Then the narrative crafted by the media might have been different -- instead of writing another story anointing the upstart Obama, story-starved journalists would have pounced on Clinton’s strength among the working-class white voters she champions so vigorously on the stump, comparing Obama’s blowouts in Virginia and Maryland to Clinton’s in West Virginia. Subsequent contests would have been predestinate based solely on the makeup of the “average voter,” each result scrutinized for its racial and socioeconomic skews while silly addendums like voter choice were marginalized. The race in every measurable way would be tighter, the vitriol exchanged by the campaigns more gruesome, the damage done to the party as a whole more irreparable.
Of course, we saw hints of all of these things during the campaign that actually was. The camps scuffled over snipergate, Wrightgate, bittergate and more. Texas was for Hillary because of Latinos. Vermont for Obama because of educated liberals and upscale whites. Pennsylvania and Ohio for Hillary because of blue-collars, union-types and Catholics. North Carolina for Obama because one-third of the electorate was black.
But they were contests all, with key voting blocs shifting, however slightly, between the candidates and particular issues resonating more and less with different audiences. Even the most homogenous of states provided some diversity of background and thought to render a glimpse into the mind of the American Voter, the faceless, nameless, sea-to-shining-sea exemplar of the values set that elevates a man or woman from the mass of his or her peers to the grandeur of the Oval Office.
And then we have West Virginia: 95 percent white, 88 percent of Tuesday’s voters making less than $100,000 a year, only 30 percent with college degrees, 63 percent saying their number one concern was the economy. It is, statistically and culturally, an outlier, just like Utah, which delivered 90 percent of its Republican primary to Mitt Romney. Ninety percent: He beat runner-up John McCain by 85 points. Outside of the District of Columbia, which would give a death-row serial murderer/baby seal rapist 60 percent of the vote should he register Democrat, no one gets anywhere close to 90 percent of the vote in an American election. It just doesn’t happen. America isn’t built for people to agree in such large numbers.
Consider this—after his stunning debut at the convention and after Republican rival Jack Ryan imploded when his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, claimed he asked her to engage in sexual activity in front of other patrons at sex clubs they frequented, Barack Obama clinched his U.S. Senate seat in 2004 with 70 percent of the vote. He defeated Alan Keyes, who moved into the state and established legal residency to run against him, by the largest margin -- 43 points -- in U.S. Senate race history. Three in ten voters still thought Obama wasn’t the best choice at the time.
So let’s qualify Clinton’s 41-point win in West Virginia. Fully 89 percent of voters said that the recession had affected them either greatly or somewhat, 69 percent said that Clinton shared their values, 65 percent of voters were over 45 years old, 70 percent said they would like to see the race continue. Clinton did not lose a single county. All signs point to a state that for its many virtues is a terrible voting body from which to glean any sort of lesson or larger outcome.
On Tuesday, West Virginians had their say and performed smoothly in their own space and place in time, reminding everyone of their key issues. Yes, working class whites are important—not only to Democrats, not only to opportunistic Republicans, not only in quadrennial Novembers, but to the country, consistently and honestly, as a whole. Yes, the plight of rural areas is often ignored or forgotten in favor of big-city malaise and decay. Yes, many of these voters have turned to their guns and faith, so shouldn’t we ask what makes them bitter and scared in the first place?
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Clinton on the campaign trail was fond of reminding voters that Democrats really need to win West Virginia (no Dem since Woodrow Wilson has been elected without the Mountain State), but isn’t the entire Democratic Party platform this year, and the stump speeches of both candidates, about change and firsts? Some election analysts have speculated that Clinton knows as well as anyone that the end is near and that she’s racking up big wins to go out on top when she finally is forced to bow out. Others question whether she’s wrangling for a deal on withdrawal, asking the Obama campaign to pick up the tab on her campaign debts, now totaling around $20 million. Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, said on Tuesday that there was no truth to the debt rumor, meaning there may be some truth to it. Clinton could also be testing the waters to see if she can push the limits of her big margins to create a more appealing case for superdelegates, chip away at Obama’s popular-vote lead or even pad her vice-presidential resume of delivering key demographics.
I’m inclined more than anything to believe that she’s simply running on autopilot, zipping along at a manic pace because she has for so long known nothing else. And provided she doesn’t say anything particularly new or nasty about Obama, the party elite seem content to allow her to continue until June 3 and the finish line of the primaries and caucuses. That’s the point-of-no-return, where she must finish her thank-you lap around the country or buy tickets and brass knuckles for Denver.
But all is not dreary and dire. As West Virginia so clearly illustrates, the voices of every corner in the country are being heard. Political creeps in Iowa and New Hampshire will not shape the course of the nation this time around. Along with the slung mud that splatters everywhere, inflicting untold collateral damage, actual pertinent issues can raise their feisty little heads and demand attention. Green, clean energy? What about our coal industry, ask West Virginians. Nuclear power? What about the Yucca Mountain waste dump, ask Nevadans. Homeland security? What about border security, ask Texans. Federal aid for farmers in California? What about our water, ask the fine people of Colorado.
As we (eventually) move into a general (or, post-primary) season, it becomes the immensely difficult job of the last candidates standing to remember and respect the hopes and nightmares of every piecemeal electorate while drafting a coherent, cohesive platform to serve the greater public good. It’s a horrifying, daunting concept, but unless you’re planning on dumping ballots in the Florida bushes, it’s the road that must be run. -- Joe Horton