What’s eating Appalachia?
Many Democrats in the region seem to hate their president
Jul 7th 2012
A.J. WADE, a lifelong Democrat and one of three elected commissioners who run Hardy County in West Virginia, fiddles with his bolo tie as he tries to explain the results of his party’s presidential primary, back in May. “People here”, he says, “would have voted for Mickey Mouse if he’d been on the ballot.” The fictional rodent was not running, however, so they ended up supporting a much less appealing candidate: Keith Judd, a convict serving a 17-year sentence for extortion in a Texan jail. Mr Judd won 58% of the vote in Hardy County to Barack Obama’s 42%.
Mr Judd’s victory was not a freak result: Democrats in a further nine counties in West Virginia judged a resident of the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana a better standard-bearer for their party than the current occupant of the White House. Mr Obama did win the state overall, but not exactly resoundingly: Mr Judd took 41% of the vote, enough to secure at least one delegate to the party’s national convention in September if any had registered on his behalf (none did).
Mr Obama suffered a similar rebuke in neighbouring Kentucky, where 41% of Democrats ticked a box labelled “uncommitted” rather than endorse the president’s re-election bid. He has never had much of a following in Appalachia: Hillary Clinton thumped him in the primaries in the region in 2008. At the general election that year, even as the rest of the country swung to the left, a crescent of counties astride the Appalachian range, from south-western Pennsylvania to north-eastern Mississippi, moved in the opposite direction. Late last year Gallup put Mr Obama’s approval rating in West Virginia, a state with almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, at 33%. The president is so unpopular that the two most senior Democrats in the state on the ballot this year, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Senator Joe Manchin, both refuse to say they will vote for him.
Asked what has got West Virginia’s goat, Shelley Moore Capito, who represents Hardy County in Congress, mentions onerous regulation—a familiar refrain among her fellow Republicans. The county is a big poultry producer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has accused several chicken and turkey farmers in the area of polluting water that will eventually find its way into Chesapeake Bay. In the rest of the state, coal is king and the EPA is seen as committing regicide. It has withheld permits for coal mines, tightened pollution controls for power plants that use coal, and is in the process of drafting regulations on greenhouse gases. To distance himself from such policies when running for the Senate in 2010, Mr Manchin produced an ad in which he took a rifle to a proposed climate-change bill.
But West Virginia’s distaste for the president, Mrs Capito argues, is “more than just a policy disagreement—it’s at the core of who we are.” The meddling bureaucracy of the EPA, she says, suggests a worrying disrespect for property rights, while Mr Obama’s enthusiasm for issuing debt offends thrifty locals. Jim Webb, a senator from neighbouring Virginia, has noted that much of the population of Appalachia is of Scots-Irish descent. Such voters, he says, often feel snubbed by Democrats who set little store by their “guns and religion”, as Mr Obama once memorably put it. (This may help to explain the president’s poor showing in primaries in Arkansas and Oklahoma, which also have big Scots-Irish populations.)...