When Senate dean Robert Byrd died this summer, almost all political observers placed the vacant seat squarely in the Democratic column. Even though West Virginia has trended Republican at the national level since 2000, it was thought the popularity of Gov. Joe Manchin would keep the seat from flipping.
Recent polls, though, suggest the race between Governor Manchin and businessman John Raese is dead even. Both parties are up with ads, and with Raese's residual name ID (he's run three losing statewide campaigns) observers now rate the race too close to call. Since there's been no personal revelation or strong issue position that has swung the race (indeed, Manchin has earned the NRA endorsement and says he'll vote to repeal Obamacare), one must ask what the political elites were missing.
What they were missing is what all but a few political observers have been missing all year long: For all the talk about independents and tea parties, the defining characteristic of this election is the revolt of the white working class. This group, known in the past as the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, NASCAR Dads, or Clinton Democrats, is upset at national Democrats and the Obama administration. Their fury provides the oxygen that turns the Tea Party's spark into a raging fire. And West Virginia is the white working class's capital.
Consider this. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, over 94 percent of West Virginians are white. Only 17 percent have a bachelor's degree or more, and fully 60 percent have never even attended a two- or four-year college or university. While the white working class constitutes between 40 and 50 percent of the national electorate according to various exit polls, it approaches 70 percent of the Mountaineer State's voters.
There are few surveys that separate out the white working class, so we don't have much direct data documenting their opinions. But both anecdotal observations and Gallup poll data support the idea that they are trending GOP.
Were you surprised when Bart Stupak and David Obey stepped down? You wouldn't have been if you knew that Stupak's seat is 93 percent white with only 18 percent holding a B.A. or more, or that Obey's seat is 94 percent white and 19 percent college grads. Clearly these incumbents felt the flames beneath their feet and fled. Surprised that Phil Hare and Baron Hill are on GOP target lists? Hare's seat is 85 percent white, 17.5 percent college grads; Hill's is 93 percent white, 19 percent college grads. When the fire's raging, even strong buildings get burned.
Look at any list of House targets and you see that white-working-class-dominated districts appear far in excess of their proportion of House seats nationwide. This is true in the South (Chet Edwards, the open seats in Arkansas and Tennessee), the Northeast (Kathy Dahlkemper, Chris Carney, Michael Arcuri) and the Midwest (John Boccieri, Ike Skelton, Steve Kagen). It is less true in the West, but even there target seats like Washington 3 and Colorado 3 are whiter and less educated than the national average.
The limited poll data available support these conclusions. As I posted on the Corner recently, "President Obama is least popular among people without college degrees (42 percent) and whites (37 percent). Since he remains highly popular among African Americans (88 percent), who are likelier to be without a college degree, and among post-graduates (54 percent), who are likelier to be white, we can infer that the president's standing among whites without a college degree is stunningly low." My best guess, without more data, is that only about one-third of these voters support the president.
Ron Brownstein is the only major political journalist who has consistently noticed this. In column after column, he has documented the collapse in support for the administration among white working-class voters. He reports that a recent survey shows that this group distrusts government, opposes Obamacare, and believes the country is "'significantly worse off' because of Obama's policies." It's hard to imagine why voters who hold these opinions, and who are also the among the hardest hit by the Great Recession, will pull the Democratic lever in November.
Democrats will point to the special election earlier this year in John Murtha's old seat, Pennsylvania 12, as evidence that they can win back the white working class. This seat is 94 percent white and 17 percent college graduates, yet Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns by a solid margin. But while this race shows that local campaigns matter, one cannot read too much into it. It was held concurrently with a primary in a state that does not permit registered independents to vote in party primaries. Not surprisingly, turnout among independents was very low, something that won't be true in the fall. Furthermore, this district is normally solidly Democratic, giving Al Gore and John Kerry solid wins. Most of the House seats on the target lists are much more favorable to the GOP, and West Virginia is now overwhelmingly Republican at the national level.
Given these trends, what's shocking is that West Virginia is so close. If anyone other than Governor Manchin were running, this seat would be considered as safe a gain for Republicans as is North Dakota. As it is, it will be a horse race that either side can win. But we should not be surprised if on Election Day, the victory that puts the GOP in control of the Senate comes at the hands of coal miner's daughters from the hollers of West Virginia.
Henry Olsen is a vice president and the director of the National Research Initiative at AEI.