Things got weird in West Virginia Tuesday night.
Bernie Sanders won the state’s primary over Hillary Clinton, and while the delegates he collects will do nothing to knock the front-runner off her glide path to the Democratic nomination, it will give the insurgent candidate a much-needed shot of adrenaline during what could be a good month for him.
That part was expected. The rest was not.West Virginia, like other Southern and Appalachian states, is at the tail end of a long transition away from Democratic Party, which once ruled the South, to the GOP, the natural ideological home of its conservative voters.
Democratic voters still technically outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one in the Mountain State, even though it hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years, and isn’t likely to again for the foreseeable future.
Just over half – 51 percent – of West Virginia voters are registered Democrats, while just 29 percent are registered Republicans, according to data released by the secretary of state’s office. Another 17.6 percent of voters are independents.
Many of those Democrats, however, behave like Republicans, which helps explain why Donald Trump voters played a key role in putting Sanders over the top Tuesday.
A third of those who voted in West Virginia’s Democratic primary say they plan to back Trump in November, according to NBC News exit polls. Sanders won those voters by a wide margin.
In fact, 39 percent of Sanders voters said they would vote for Trump over Sanders in the fall. For Clinton, nine percent of her voters say they plan to come out for Trump in the general election.
West Virginia has an open primary, meaning independents can vote in the Democratic contest. With the GOP nomination wrapped up, it’s possible mischievous Trump supporters sought to damage Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, by voting for Sanders.
There was also a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday – and no Republican one – so Trump voters might have turned out for that and then weighed in on the presidential ballot line while they were at it.
Either way, Sanders’ coalition in West Virginia doesn’t fit with many of the patterns we’ve come to expect of Sanders voters after more than 40 primaries and caucuses.
For instance, Sanders, the Vermont Democratic Socialist, won self-described conservative voters. He also won 62 percent of voters who said they want less liberal policies than Obama’s.
That suggests some of Sanders’ voters may have been motivated more by a desire to vote against Clinton, rather than to support Sanders’ policy ideas.
The state has a particular distaste for President Obama. That seems to have damaged Clinton, his former cabinet member who is running to continue his legacy.
In 2012, when Obama ran for reelection unopposed in the primary, Keith Judd, an inmate sitting in a federal prison in Texas won a stunning 41 percent of the Democratic primary vote in the state.
A year later, 38 percent of Democrats in the state told pollsters they wanted to impeach the president, according to a Public Policy Polling survey. West Virginia has given Obama his lowest approval rating of all 50 states – just 24 percent in 2013, according to Gallup.
On Tuesday, just 27 percent of people who voted in the Democratic primary said they want to continue Obama’s policies, according to exit polls.Eight years ago, Clinton was in Sanders’ role.
West Virginia gave Clinton one of her largest victories over Obama of any state. Even though the contest came in mid-May, when the primary was effectively over, Clinton beat Obama by 41 percentage points.
Many attributed the outcome to West Virginia voters’ discomfort with Obama’s race. The state is one of the whitest in the country.
Compounding the problem for Obama in 2012 was the decline of the coal industry, which many blamed on the president’s environmental policies. West Virginia has always been a poor state, but the loss of coal jobs has been devastating.
When Clinton campaigned in West Virginia, coal miners repeatedly turned out to protest her.
More than 90 percent of Democratic primary voters Tuesday said they worried about the direction of the economy, with 60 percent saying they were very worried.
Unlike in perhaps every other state, Clinton’s connection to Obama seems to contaminate her.
Fortunately for Clinton, she won’t need to win – or even compete in – West Virginia come November.