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Why Hillary Clinton Can’t Win in Coal Country

In West Virginia, Donald Trump is being hailed as the savior of coal jobs—while Clinton’s realism is dooming her.

Mark Lyons/Getty Images

Coal is on the ballot today in West Virginia. Although there’s no mystery at this point about who will win the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, the state’s primary has offered a preview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s coming general-election battle for white, working-class voters who are worried about the struggles of coal and other industries—a bloc that’ll be key in competitive general-election battlegrounds like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The West Virginia primary is a gauge of whether Clinton can promote strong environmental measures without losing too much support from voters and unions who see those regulations as “job-killing.” And it hasn’t gone well.

On the trail in West Virginia, Clinton has faced fire for her tone-deaf (but decontextualized) comment at a March CNN forum, when she promised to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” In the same breath, Clinton uttered her promises to bring new economic opportunity to the area and “to make clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” but Republicans and industry seized on her “out of business” remark and ran with it. Clinton’s now-infamous comment led to a confrontation last week with a recently out-of-work coal miner who referenced it and said the candidate had a lot of gall to “come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend.” Clinton called her comment a “misstatement” and apologized, trying again to make her point: “What I said was totally out of context from what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time,” she said. “What I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs. That’s what I meant to say.”

Clinton knows she won’t win West Virginia in November, barring a complete catastrophe on the Republican side. Since 2000, debates over social conservatism and gun rights have helped pull the state Bill Clinton once carried from blue to red—though nothing has been a bigger sticking point than the so-called “War on Coal.” Between 2008 and 2012, the coal industry lost more than 49,000 jobs, with significant losses in West Virginia and Kentucky. In that same period, jobs in renewable energy technologies grew by 175,000. But few of those jobs moved into the areas depressed by coal’s fall. This year alone, at least five large coal and energy companies with footholds in the West Virginia economy have declared bankruptcy.

Those numbers have only accelerated rising tensions between anti-coal environmentalists and those who’ve long depended on the industry for their livelihoods. Those tensions explain why Clinton, who skated to a 41 percent victory over Barack Obama in the 2008 West Virginia primary, is struggling so much this year—trailing Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and being trounced by Trump in the state’s general-election polls.

Trump has been greeted euphorically in West Virginia because he’s saying what everyone in the economically devastated region wants to hear. “We’re going to put the miners back to work,” he vowed in Charleston last week. He donned a hard hat, promised to revisit the environmental policies that have contributed to the coal industry’s decline, and told 13,000 West Virginians he would make the state “better than ever before,” as fans waved “TRUMP DIGS COAL” signs. Of course, he was quick to take advantage of Clinton’s travails: “She said, ‘I’m going to put the miners and the mines out of business.’ And then she comes over and she tried to explain her statement. That is a tough one to explain. Wouldn’t you say?”

Clinton, by contrast, is being punished in West Virginia for her pragmatism about coal’s dim future. The politics are tricky: She wants to keep environmentalists—still skeptical of her devotion to their cause—happy by saying she’ll build on Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other regulatory initiatives. But she knows those policies could hurt her (and other Democrats) with white working-class voters like the ones who dominate in West Virginia—and with labor groups like the powerful United Mine Workers of America, which has been sharply critical of Obama’s environmental policies after endorsing him in the past.

In November, Clinton introduced a plan that tried to strike a balance between environmental and job concerns. While it was careful to praise coal workers’ contributions to the U.S. economy, the plan didn’t mince words in bringing up a big “but”: “But today we are in the midst of a global energy transition.” To help miners and coal communities through that transition, Clinton proposed $30 billion for economic diversification, local school funding, job training, and other programs. Her plan addressed not only the upheaval created by a rising number of coal companies falling into bankruptcy, but also the economic, educational, and health ramifications of coal’s decline.

Coal Country did not take kindly to this. National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich told Politico Clinton’s proposal was “made-for-campaign rhetoric,” and compared her policies to those of the Obama administration which “has systematically eviscerated” the coal industry. Ed Yankovich, a district vice president of the United Mine Workers, said folks in coal communities felt abandoned by the Obama administration and were wary of Clinton’s continuation of his policies.

While Clinton has been assailed in West Virginia, Sanders has been able to glide by on his union-friendly image and populist rhetoric while still denouncing the use of fossil fuels. In polling averages, he leads Clinton by six points. But Sanders’s actual proposals for coal country are similar to Clinton’s. In December, the Vermont senator introduced legislation that would allocate $41 billion to transition coal workers into new industries and rebuild communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry. (The bill has been exiled to committee, and Govtrack gives it a 1 percent chance of being enacted.)

His proposal might not win any more hearts in West Virginia than Clinton’s, but Sanders has framed his message more appealingly: “What the scientists tell us in a very clear way, no ambiguity, is that we have a short window of opportunity to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels,” he said at a May 5 rally in Morgantown. “Now I know and you know that as we transform our energy system there are people who will be hurt in that transformation. Our job is to make sure that we protect those workers.” That same day, at a panel on poverty at a McDowell County food bank, Sanders said, “It is not the coal miners’ fault in terms of what is happening in this world.”

But Sanders is not Clinton’s problem in coal country; Trump is. Tuesday’s results in West Virginia won’t change anything in the Democratic race: Even if Clinton loses, she’ll remain the almost-certain nominee. But a win or an unexpectedly strong showing, given the hostility among so many West Virginians to her $30 billion plan and her fealty to Obama, would be a sign that Clinton is making some headway in her attempt to speak hard truths to working-class voters who’d rather hear big, vague promises. On the other hand, a resounding defeat would mean that Clinton’s pitch to promote both environmentalism and jobs still needs some serious refinement.