West Virginia: A Case Study in Trumpism

Take a look at the trajectory of what happened in West Virginia during the last five presidential races. The Republican nominee won that state every time, and the margins are even more telling.

2000 – 6.3
2004 – 12.9
2008 – 13.1
2012 – 28.8
2016 – 42.1

If you go back before 2000, it’s not just that Bill Clinton won West Virginia, so did that Northeastern liberal Michael Dukakis. Jimmy Carter even beat Ronald Reagan there in 1980. Identifying what is going on in West Virginia might inform Democrats as they look to explain the shifts that are balanced out by the opposite trajectory in states like neighboring Virginia.

But right in the middle of that transition, Democrat Joe Manchin managed to get elected as a senator in 2010, a year that brought us a red tidal wave. Because it was a special election to fill the seat of Sen. Robert Byrd, he had to run again in 2012. Manchin won that race by 24 points, even as Obama lost the state by almost 30 points.

I say all of that because it is important to keep in mind the challenges that a Democrat like Manchin faces in his home state. His positions on issues are often at odds with the rest of the party to which he belongs. It’s actually surprising that West Virginia elects any Democrats at all. But it should come as no surprise that the one who wins there is of a different mold.

That’s why I found the headline of this piece by Edward-Isaac Dovere today so telling: “‘I Was an Easy Pick-up.’ How Trump Lost Manchin on Taxes.” To the extent that Trump had any interest in the kind of bipartisan populism that would appeal to white working class Americans, Joe Manchin would have been his man, and Trump did reached out to have meetings with the West Virginia Democrat. Here’s how that went down:

During the transition last year and several times since, Donald Trump repeatedly pushed Joe Manchin to switch parties and become a Republican, the West Virginia senator revealed in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.

He said no—“I said, ‘You need more Democrats like me, you don’t need Republicans,’” Manchin explained.

So Trump asked Manchin to support repealing Obamacare, and then the Republican tax bill.

He said no to those too.

The president demonstrated pretty early on that he doesn’t compromise and has no real interest in the impact things like repealing Obamacare and big tax cuts for the wealthy would have on the people of that state. So even though Manchin considered himself “an easy pick-up,” Trump couldn’t cash in.

Keep in mind that the poverty rate in West Virginia is 18.3 percent (U.S. average is 14.8 percent) and the state ranks 48th on median income. The Mountain State has become ground zero for the opioid epidemic, which Trump has done nothing to address. As one of the few red states to expand Medicaid, the repeal of Obamacare would have devastated West Virginia.

“Repealing the ACA: Hurting Our Health and Our Economy,” released Tuesday, says not only 184,000 West Virginians would lose health insurance, but the state’s weak economy could falter with the loss of billions of dollars of federal funds.

An estimated 16,000 jobs would be lost by 2019 and nearly $350 million would be lost in tax revenue over five years. The Urban Institute estimates West Virginia would lose $14 billion in federal funds between 2019-2028, including $12 billion supporting Medicaid/CHIP.

Even a conservative Democrat like Joe Manchin had to come to grips with all of that and reject the notion of repealing Obamacare. But that wasn’t true for Trump.

We’ll have to wait and see how that affects Manchin’s race for re-election in 2018. He clearly makes the cut when pundits identify the Senate seats most likely to flip. It will be equally interesting to see if Republicans maintain their dominance in West Virginia when it comes to presidential races in the Trump era. Flipping 42 percent of the vote in 2020 is probably a bridge too far for Democrats. But here’s what job approval ratings looked like back in August:

We can all learn a lesson from watching what is happening in this extremely red state. When push comes to shove, this president doesn’t have any desire to work in a bipartisan manner and probably doesn’t have any real understanding of words like “negotiation” and “compromise.”

Trump took working class white people for a ride during the election and has resoundingly dumped them over and over again when it comes to the policies embraced by his administration. His base of support might have come from their ranks, but his real allegiance is elsewhere. Whether or not the voters of West Virginia are ready to come to grips with that reality will be something to keep an eye on.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.