If you ever want to dispel the myth that Barack Obama represents the economic interest of the working class, take a drive through coal country. This last weekend, I drove through central Pennsylvania and the signs were out in force, demanding that Obama be the next worker to get laid off.
The reason? These aren’t voters who put the rights of the unborn at the top of their agenda, as much as I’d like to see that change. None of the signs were about preserving gun ownership. In short, this wasn’t about bitter people clinging to guns and religion, as the president so memorably put in when he was kissing up in Hollywood back in 2008.
Voters in Coal Country believe the Obama Administration is killing their livelihood, and it’s reflective in long-term political trends and short-term polling data. West Virginia used to be as reliable a Democratic state as there was. Then George W. Bush won it in 2000—had WVA stayed blue, the whole Florida recount debacle would have been irrelevant. Bush won it again in 2004. Not only is Mitt Romney going to carry West Virginia this November, but polling is showing that it won’t be close.
Political supporters of Obama are fond of believing he represents “the 99 percent” to use the Occupy Wall Street phrase. How many economic elites in the 1 percent do you think live in West Virginia? Drive through the state sometime and come back with your answer. It isn’t many.
Then we move to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obama’s political strength in urban centers carried both states in 2008—Pennsylvania in decisive fashion—but the president’s political problems with coal are taking a toll here. Polling averages show his lead in Ohio to be within two points and even Pennsylvania is looking in play, with the margin down to about five points.
It was just this summer that Obama strategists were saying they weren’t worried about Pennsylvania—not in a cocksure way that said they couldn’t lose. But because they believed if their man got in trouble in the Keystone State it would be part of an overall campaign meltdown which would render state-by-state strategies insignificant.
I won’t say they have their meltdown—the overall national polling seems to have stabilized in a dead heat, but Obama certainly flirted with it, and if he lets Pennsylvania slip away he’s going home to Chicago.
What makes Obama’s loss of political support in Coal Country even more striking is that it’s not as though the Republicans nominated a candidate who has natural appeal here. While Ronald Reagan’s blue-collar Democratic roots made him a natural to appeal to these voters and in later years George W. Bush’s Christian faith and down-to-earth persona would go over well, Mitt Romney possesses neither. Yet in three states that conventional wisdom says he shouldn’t win, will produce at least one victory and possibly a sweep.
The current Republican nominee’s political strength lies in an appeal to the entrepreneurial class and to the suburbs. Yet blue-collar Democratic constituencies are, at minimum, giving him a long look, and in some cases embracing his candidacy. Even the Coal Miners Union opted to sit this one out. There is usually a gap between the elites of organized labor, who toe the left-wing line, and the rank-and-file, who vote their economic interests. Not in 2012 with this union.
The political priorities of the left wing are coming home to roost. When forced to choose between the environmental causes of suburban liberals and the real-life economic interests of working-class voters, they have consistently chosen the former and opted to try and dazzle the latter with rhetoric alone.
We’ll know in nineteen days what the short-term choice of these voters will be. But we already know what the long-term decision is, and it’s alienation from the mainstream political process. Because it was the Democratic Party that long held their votes, it is that party that is logically the one hurt by the alienation. I hope all those campaign donations from the Suburban Left were worth it.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com