Why West Virginia is making Democrats nervous

Amid a weird, wild campaign, the West Virginia primary suggests that the election could come down to something very familiar this fall: the economy.

Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Salem, Ore., Tuesday.

For a Democratic establishment eager to rally the party around Hillary Clinton in the general election, West Virginia was another setback.

Yet Bernie Sanders's 15-point primary win Tuesday highlighted a bigger problem than party unity for Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats come November: the economy.

Two-thirds of West Virginia voters said the economy was the top issue in the election, and a recent national poll found that Democrats are nine points behind Republicans on the generic question of which party is better on the economy.

As if to underscore the point, 44 percent of Sanders voters in West Virginia said they would vote for Donald Trump in November, while only 23 percent said they would vote for Clinton.

Admittedly, West Virginia Democrats have tilted very conservative in recent years. West Virginia’s blue-collar character is tailor-made for the different populist messages of Messrs. Trump and Sanders.

But the result suggests that, despite all the political pyrotechnics of an unusual campaign season, the November election could boil down to at least one very familiar fundamental: It’s the economy, stupid.

While Democrats may be talking now about the need to unite the party, “the biggest mandate here is for the Democrats to articulate a united economic narrative,” says Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who, along with Republican pollster Ed Goeas, released last month’s “battleground” poll.

That narrative is “the single most important thing to do as a party.”

While the drawn-out campaign is making some Clinton supporters on Capitol Hill nervous, most still strongly believe that the Democratic Party will unite – and more solidly than Republicans. Negative advertising and policy differences among Democrats pale in comparison to what has happened in the GOP primary. They also have a strong anti-Trump sentiment going for them.

Sanders looks increasingly unlikely to catch Clinton for the nomination unless her pledged superdelegates abandon her, which is unlikely at the moment.

But Democrats have also just come home from a week-long recess in their states, and they know how unsettled the electorate is. This is a “change” election, with voters tremendously frustrated with the establishment in Washington and with the economy, they say.

Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington, recently finished an 18-month project on the concerns of swing voters. “Their biggest concern is the economy has changed so drastically in the last 10-to-15 years, they don’t feel like they are equipped to navigate the new world,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics.

Democrats have to be troubled by this headline from the report, which was issued in January: “Middle class support for Democrats is skin-deep.”

Various studies have shown that rising income inequality is a primary driver of political polarization and disaffection with government.

In a review of primary exit polls Tuesday, ABC News pointed to “profound disenchantment with economic and political conditions” among Republicans, and “a deep sense of economic unfairness” among Democrats.

That could present problems for Clinton, who is seen both as an insider and as less radical in her economic message than Trump or Sanders.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed Clinton and Trump running neck-and-neck in three key battleground states, two of which are in the rust belt – Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

No Clinton supporter on the Hill is taking her victory for granted, despite electoral maps that favor her in a matchup with Trump.

“If there’s one thing Republicans and Democrats and the political establishment should learn from this year so far, it’s don’t underestimate Trump,” says Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, sometimes mentioned as a potential Clinton running mate.

“There’s enormous economic hurt in the country, you don’t take anything for granted. Every single day you work your head off,” adds Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who has endorsed Clinton.

The key, Democrats say, is to focus on what the two parties actually want to do for those struggling economically.

“I don’t think the other side is for the boost in the minimum wage, or paid sick leave or family leave, or job training and apprentices programs,” says Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington. 

Senator Cantwell has endorsed Clinton, but she praises Sanders for his “excellent” job of communicating to Millennials about the opportunity for their future. In the general election, it will be important for young people to keep hearing about their economic choice, she says.

“The implosion of the economy was a curve ball to them,” she says. They have a choice between a Republican president who could “hold them down forever” and a Democrat “that’s going to help move them ahead,” she says.

Clinton can be a “change agent,” too, her supporters say. She’s reached across the aisle in Congress and across oceans as secretary of State to get things done.

Clinton’s temptation, however, might be to get down into the policy weeds. The Washington Post recently described Clinton’s official campaign platform as twice as long as “Hamlet” – 174 pages and growing.

“As a party, we tend to jump straight into the policy minutiae, rather than our narrative,” Ms. Lake, the pollster, cautions.

As voters have so clearly seen, Trump doesn’t have that problem.

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