Hillary Clinton’s close association with President Barack Obama may be hurting her in West Virginia, where the former secretary of state is trailing behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination ahead of the state’s May 10 primary.
A REPASS research poll on Monday showed Sanders sweeping West Virginia with support among 57 percent of Democratic respondents. Clinton, who bested Obama in the state by a 42-point margin in 2008, only netted 27 percent in the REPASS poll.
Close watchers of the Democratic race say the reversal is largely due to Clinton’s ties with the president, with whom she served as secretary of state until 2012. Throughout her campaign, Clinton has held up her experience in Washington and loyalty to Obama as reasons to choose her over the Vermont senator.
But Obama is deeply unpopular in the Mountain State, where constituents believe his environmental policies targeting big coal — a major industry in the state — have stifled economic growth. According to a recent Gallup poll, Obama’s approval rating in West Virginia is a mere 24 percent, the worst of any state in the union.
“It’s hard to tack away from the president, and with the president” at the same time, said Rex Repass, whose polling agency conducted the study published in Metro News.
Unemployment in West Virginia is about 7 percent, higher than the national average of 5.5 percent, according to the Department of Labor. In the coal-producing regions of the state, unemployment is almost 10 percent, according to the Federal Reserve.
Local politicians and businesses leaders have for years blamed Obama’s increasing regulation of the coal industry for massive layoffs, and have even dubbed his policies a “war on coal.” Although Sanders, like Clinton, has pledged to fight carbon pollution, that aspect of his platform doesn’t seem to register among many Democrats in the state.
“I don’t think the voters this cycle are really looking at policies,” said Scott Crichlow, chair of the political science department at West Virginia University.
“This is an election where identities of the campaigns feel so visceral. The concept of Sanders is so much ‘let's turn over the apple cart.’ I think that idea is compelling for a lot of voters here,” Chrichlow said.
So strong is the anti-Obama sentiment — and by extension anti-Clinton sentiment — that State Sen. Jeff Kessler, running for the Democratic party’s nomination for governor of the state, has chosen to endorse Sanders over Clinton.
Kessler’s Democratic rivals, millionaire coal magnate Joe Justice and former U.S. Attorney Goodwin Booth, have been “conspicuously silent” on their party’s presidential hopefuls. None of the candidates replied to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.
“I think to associate themselves with Hillary Clinton at this point would just end up in extremely negative ads for them in November,” Crichlow said.
Still, backing for Sanders goes deeper than opposition to Clinton, said Chuck Nelson, an environmental activist who spent 30 years mining coal in West Virginia. Nelson lives in Raleigh County, where he says coal companies have ravaged both the economy and environment. Nelson said he plans on voting for Sanders.
“Why Sanders has won me over is that he’s not afraid to go out and talk about corporations, where Hillary is a little hesitant,” Nelson said. “She said she will address coal field problems, like poverty, but won’t address corporate welfare,” he added.
As for Republicans in the state, Donald Trump looks poised to win their vote. The same REPASS Research poll that found Democrats favoring Sanders over Clinton shows Trump leading with 40 percent of Republican respondents.
“Trump, he’s a businessman,” Nelson said. “And when he’s talked about jobs in a place as desperate as we are, people have a little bit of hope.”