Sanders, Clinton, and the Not-So-Simple Case of West Virginia

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The New Yorker

Sanders, Clinton, and the Not-So-Simple Case of West Virginia

'One of the puzzles of the Democratic primary race, which the West Virginia results did little to untangle, is whether voters are more driven by what and whom they are for or by what they are against—and what they simply can’t abide.' (Photo: BernieSanders.com)

When Bernie Sanders took the stage in Salem, Oregon, on Tuesday night, after winning the West Virginia primary—“a big, big victory” and “a tremendous victory,” he called it—he had a look on his face of pure delight. The crowd of a few thousand cheered almost every one of his lines; he threw back his head with a broad grin, and declared the town “ready for a political revolution.” To put it more precisely, they, and Sanders, did not sound ready for this campaign to stop. Hillary Clinton has won more pledged delegates than he has and, with the superdelegates who have promised to support her, she is closer than ever to securing the Democratic Presidential nomination. (West Virginia gives out delegates proportionally, so she got some, too.) It would take not only a Sanders surge but a Clinton crash for that to change. Perhaps that’s what Sanders is waiting for. One of the puzzles of the Democratic primary race, which the West Virginia results did little to untangle, is whether voters are more driven by what and whom they are for or by what they are against—and what they simply can’t abide.

Sanders tried to push aside the idea that he was just staying in the race to make sure that as many enthusiastic young delegates as possible made it to the Democratic Convention, in Philadelphia, in order to keep the Party platform from drifting to the center. (As my colleague John Cassidy wrote last week, one reason for Sanders to continue is that his supporters want him to. As Cassidy notes, even some of Clinton’s supporters think that the enthusiasm he has brought helps the Party, and some polls back them up.) “Let me be as clear as I can be: we are in this campaign to win the Democratic nomination,” Sanders said in Salem, to another roar from the crowd. “And we are going to fight to win every last vote in Oregon, Kentucky, California, the Dakotas.” Those states all have primaries in the next month, and Sanders has a decent shot in some of them, though he is well behind in California. He added, “Now, we fully acknowledge—we are good at arithmetic—that we have an uphill climb ahead of us. But we are used to fighting uphill climbs.” The way Sanders made the math add up was with a mass conversion of superdelegates. And he wanted that to be the result of them picturing him in a fight against Donald Trump. He thought that it would look better than a Trump-Clinton match.

“Our campaign is the strongest campaign against Donald Trump,” Sanders said. As evidence, he cited “enthusiasm” and a series of national and state polls that showed him beating Trump “by bigger numbers than Secretary Clinton.” General-election polls have an abstract quality at this stage, since the current front-runners haven’t really faced each other. (On Wednesday morning, Trump began tweeting about “Crazy Bernie.”) Then again, Sanders, after all his talk of “the billionaires,” might have quite a time if he were given the chance to confront an actual billionaire on the debate stage. In Salem, he also spoke, as Clinton has, about Trump’s bigotry, from his birtherism (“a very ugly effort to delegitimize the President”) to his proposed ban on Muslims. Hypotheticals and marginal polling data seem unlikely to cause a defection of superdelegates, many of whom have long histories with Clinton, absent a true scandal. And Clinton does generally beat Trump in the polls, too, though a Quinnipiac poll released this week showed her slightly behind in Ohio, with close races in Florida and Pennsylvania. Sanders’s late successes raise questions for the Clinton team about the difficulties she could encounter in a race with Trump. That is true even in a state like West Virginia, which has gone Republican in the last several general elections. When she loses there, or anywhere at this point, it’s worth examining why.

“West Virginia is a working-class state,” Sanders said, in explaining his victory, and “working people are hurting.” That is true, profoundly so. And Sanders has a set of policy proposals (against free trade, for reducing the cost of college and health care and raising taxes on the wealthy) that resonate with them. Clinton has, as a direct result of his challenge, moved or fortified her own positions on issues like increasing the minimum wage. On Tuesday, she came out with new proposals for expanding Medicare and access to child care. But the campaign isn’t as simple as that. In West Virginia, Sanders won slightly more than fifty-one per cent of the vote. (According to exit polls, he won sixty-five per cent of the voters forty-four and younger.) Clinton only got thirty-six per cent (and twenty-four per cent of younger voters). Paul Farrell, a West Virginia lawyer who had said that he was running because both Clinton and Sanders were too liberal, got nine per cent—which is what Ted Cruz, who has suspended his campaign (but hinted on Tuesday that he could unsuspend it), got on the Republican side. (Trump got seventy-six per cent of the Republican vote—another lift of his ceiling—and sixty-one per cent in Nebraska.) Keith Judd, a felon who, notoriously, got forty-one per cent of the West Virginia primary vote against an incumbent Barack Obama, in 2012, got 1.8 per cent, putting him just ahead of Martin O’Malley. Clinton did worse with moderates than Sanders did. According to a CBS exit poll, a third of Democratic primary voters said that they would vote for Trump in the general election over either Clinton or Sanders. (Independents could vote, and some may have been brought in by other races on the ballot.) Only six per cent of West Virginians of either party said that the prospect of a Trump Presidency left them “scared.” West Virginians are brave people.

In 2008, Clinton won West Virginia with sixty-six per cent of the vote to Obama’s twenty-five per cent, which had been read as a sign of her elective affinity with the white working class. Does the drop in support for her there represent a reaction to her decisions as Secretary of State or to her speaking fees? Or is it because she said, in March, when talking about jobs of the future, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”? How much of it was because, eight years ago, she was running against a man named Barack Hussein Obama? (West Virginia is about ninety-two-per-cent white.) And how much of Sanders’s success is due not to his call for revolution but to the fact that his opponent is Clinton?

That may be too simple, also. Sanders’s broader message has to do with what he calls the corruption of the political system. In his speech in Salem, he spoke about Wall Street donations to super PACs undermining democracy. (He didn’t connect them to Clinton, though he has often enough.) It’s something that Trump also talks about. The ideological implications of the belief that just about everything in this country is “rigged” have yet to be worked out. This election has, at least, revealed that the feeling is widespread. In West Virginia, according to a CNN exit poll, voters who listed honesty as a top quality they looked for in a candidate went for Sanders over Clinton by a margin of sixty-nine per cent to twenty-one. There have been similar findings in other states. Clinton’s supporters may feel that such concerns, unfair to start with, are laughable when one compares her to a brazen liar like Trump. But Trump can lie about that, too. Sanders is still in this fight, and he has sound reasons to keeping going. Getting ready for the next one, though, is on Clinton.

Amy Davidson

Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker.

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