“West Virginia Keeps Distance From Obama.” So reads the headline on a Financial Times piece today.
Just who is this “West Virginia” eyeing Obama warily and keeping a healthy distance?
Twenty-two people the reporter interviewed at a Clinton rally in the small coal-mining town of Williamson, two of whom supplied the reporter with quotes tailor-made for the lede and kicker to a piece about how Tuesday’s likely outcome (a sizable Clinton victory in the West Virginia primary) will “raise fresh doubts [especially in the FT’s mind] about whether the US is ready to elect its first black president.” (The story opens with a retired coal miner and Democrat who says he’d vote for McCain over Obama because he’s heard Obama is a Muslim and his wife is an atheist; the kicker quotes an ambulance driver and Democrat who prefers a “full-blooded American” — that is, McCain, not Obama — in the White House).
More from the piece:
A visit to Mingo County, a Democratic stronghold in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, reveals the scale of Mr Obama’s challenge - not only in West Virginia but in white, working-class communities across the US. With a gun shop on its main street and churches dotted throughout the town, Williamson is the kind of community evoked by Mr Obama’s controversial comments last month about “bitter” small-town voters who “cling to guns or religion.”
Something/s about this article rubbed me the wrong way (Oversimplifications? Generalizations? Lack of context/knowledge? A nagging sense that the reporter had written his story before he even paid his “visit to Mingo County?”) So I consulted my West Virginia-raised colleague to get his thoughts on the piece and on the validity of drawing conclusions about West Virginia (and the nation) from “a visit to Mingo County.”
To treat West Virginia as a Democratic bellwether is about as reliable as trying to extrapolate what America thinks based on the views of the denizens of Manhattan (or what England thinks based on the views of Londoners, for that matter). Beyond that, to use Mingo county—or indeed any of the southern coalfield communities—as a bellwether for the entire state is misguided. West Virginia may indeed vote against Obama in the general…it went for Bush the last two elections, as the piece points out…but the differences between places like the steel towns of Wheeling and Weirton up by Pittsburgh, and Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, etc. over in the eastern panhandle, which are essentially bedroom communities of D.C., and places like Williamson in Mingo County, etc. are vast.
Southern West Virginia—along with eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia— is one of the most isolated and stifled regions of the country. It is here, as we learned recently, that life expectancy is actually declining for the first time in decades. These people got screwed by the big coal companies who came in and extracted all the mineral wealth and left absolutely nothing behind but these desperate little towns, many of which still do not have indoor plumbing. Another important thing to know about West Virginia “Democrats” is that it is a 2-1 Democratic state ONLY because it is so heavily unionized. The clearest manifestation of that is in the state Legislature: the place is lousy with “Democratic” lawmakers who are about as Democratic as Dick Cheney…simply because they needed to run as Dem to get elected.
Context. It complicates everything!
Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.