Clinton Will Struggle to Win Over Coal Country

The deindustrializing Appalachian Mountain states seem tailor-made for Donald Trump.

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigns in Athens, Ohio, May 3
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigns in Athens, Ohio, May 3 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s likely presidential nominee, is campaigning in Appalachia this week to try to win over working-class voters who are gravitating toward her Republican rival, Donald Trump.

The former secretary of state met with union leaders and workers in eastern Kentucky on Monday and was due to visit manufacturing towns in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia the following day.

Labor unions tend to back Democrats and Clinton, who has cultivated relations with Democratic Party insiders for decades, has strong union support.

But Trump’s message of protectionism and blaming foreigners is resonating more powerfully with coal and steel workers whose jobs look precarious, if they haven’t been displaced already.

“I’m a free-market guy, but not when you’re getting killed,” he said at a rally in Indiana. “Look at steel, it’s being wiped out. Your coal industry is wiped out and China is taking our coal.”

If anything, Chinese demand for coal has given the Rust Belt, which lost 90 percent of its coal workforce in forty years, a new lease on life. But Trump’s uncomplicated rhetoric is what draws voters who feel betrayed by both parties.

To them, the Democrats represent urbane social views and environmental policies that decimate their livelihoods. The Republicans are seen as in thrall to big business.


Trump, a liberal New Yorker and property tycoon who inherited his wealth, may seem like an odd tribune of the working class. Appalachia has embraced him as their champion nonetheless. From upstate New York down to northern Alabama, Trump has won virtually every district in the region.

West Virginia is the only Appalachian Mountain state that hasn’t voted in the presidential nominating contest yet. It looks like a certain victory for Trump.

Slow death

Clinton’s husband, Bill, was the only Democrat since Ronald Reagan to win West Virginia — the heart of Appalachia — when he ran for reelection in 1996. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since.

Yet many of its state officers are still Democrats, including the governor. Between 1959 and 2015, both of West Virginia’s senators were Democrats. From the New Deal era to Barack Obama’s, most of West Virginia’s congressmen were Democrats as well.

It’s a similar story in nearby states.

The slow death of Appalachia’s Democrats is hard to attribute to any one cause.

It can be seen in the context of the national party realignments that occurred in the 1930s and again between the 1960s and 80s.

It owes much to history. Appalachia was populated by Presbyterians and other Protestant dissenters from Northumbria and later Ulster who were “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike,” argued Colin Woodard in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011).

There is overlap here with what Walter Russell Mead, in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001), described as Jacksonian America, after the populist seventh president of the United States: Voters who are suspicious of big business and big government alike, believe their taxes are too high and racial minorities are getting too much of a break, but also support programs like Medicare and Social Security as “middle-class” entitlements.

It’s not that they oppose Democratic policies per se. The fact that most West Virginia state officials are still Democrats belies that. Rather, they oppose Democratic policies when they are imposed from far away and oppose Democrats when they appear unlike them. Hence folksy Bill Clinton could win West Virginia, but black and aloof Barack Obama is despised.

Obama’s infamous campaign promise to “bankrupt” the coal industry didn’t help. Republicans accused him of waging a “war on coal” when he tightened regulations for the industry.

Clinton, who said in March that the country would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” has her work cut out for her. She pledged $30 billion in support for struggling coal-producing regions on Monday, but it’s the sort of policy that tends to gets lost in Donald Trump’s latest war of words. Appalachia’s longer-term trends are working against Democrats anyway.

Indeed, this could be the one part of the country where the widely-depised Trump maintains Republican control in a general election.

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