Through most of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has been seen as the Democratic contender who appeals to Democrats. Bernie Sanders might attract independents in open-primary states, and political newcomers in most states, but Clinton, we’ve been told, is the candidate of the party faithful. That did not turn out to be the case in rural Kentucky, however.
In what has been characterized as the most consistently Democratic county in the United States—Elliott County in eastern Kentucky—Sanders was an easy winner Tuesday night. The strength Sanders showed in the historically Democratic counties of eastern Kentucky helped him to hold Clinton to a virtual tie in the Bluegrass State. With 99 percent of the ballots counted Wednesday morning, Clinton was clinging to a 1,923 lead out of more than 400,000 votes cast statewide and the candidates split the elected delegates 28-27. On a night when Sanders easily won Oregon, Clinton had hoped for a big win in Kentucky, a state where she beat Barack Obama by a 65-30 margin in 2008.
It didn’t work out that way.
This time, Clinton could not hold rural counties that she won handily in 2008 and that Bill Clinton won as he was carrying the state in 1992 and 1996. That’s not necessarily a crisis for Clinton; she is building new coalitions that reflect the changing demographics of the United States. But Clinton, to her immense credit, has talked about looking beyond traditional battleground states in the fall in hopes of adding more states to the Democratic map. And as she campaigned on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Clinton promised Kentuckians, “I’m not going to give up on Kentucky in November.”
If she is serious about that promise, Clinton should consider the results from eastern Kentucky. A strong signal was sent on Tuesday about what it takes to keep the old-school, New Deal voters of traditionally Democratic rural counties in the coalition. It’s not some centrist triangulation on economic issues. It’s a recognition of the lingering appeal of progressive populism.
Elliott County is emblematic of the challenges, and the opportunities, that Clinton faces as the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination. The county has voted Democratic in each presidential election since it was formed in the mid-19th century. “The majority of Elliott’s 8,000 residents have cast their ballots for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since the county was incorporated in 1869—the longest continuous stretch of any county in the United States,” noted a Huffington Post profile of the county published several years ago.
Even as other once-Democratic counties in coal country moved into the Republican column in recent presidential elections, Elliott County voted for Al Gore and John Kerry and Barack Obama—not once, but twice. (Notably, in this overwhelmingly white county, Obama won 61 percent of the vote in 2008, a higher level of support than in any other Kentucky county that year. In 2012, Obama won his second-highest Kentucky percentage in Elliott County, after the Louisville metro area’s Jefferson County.)
Elliott County seemed to have a thing for the Clintons. Bill Clinton won it with ease in 1992 and 1996, and that was important because votes from eastern Kentucky were critical to his narrow statewide victories in those two elections. Elliott County also handed Hillary Clinton a staggering 90 percent of the vote in her 2008 Democratic primary race with Obama.
But the Clinton winning streak ended Tuesday night.
Elliott County chose Sanders over Clinton by a wide margin, giving the democratic-socialist senator from Vermont 53 percent of the vote to just 36 percent for the former secretary of state. The collapse in Clinton’s numbers paralleled statewide patterns. Where Clinton swept rural Kentucky in the 2008 primary, she struggled in 2016. In a number of coal-country counties, the front-runner secured less than a third of the vote.
Much has been made of the frustration of voters in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with statements made by Clinton about the future of coal jobs. Surely, that was a factor with some voters. But not everyone in what is referred to as “coal country” is a coal miner. Indeed, the decline in the coal industry has forced tens of thousands of people to look for other types of work—and to place a high value on the social safety net and educational opportunities. In many parts of the country that are imagined to be conservative, there is still a New Deal sensibility; indeed, that sensibility has been invigorated in some areas by the difficult economic circumstances of recent decades. There’s a language that extends from the New Deal era and it still resonates in parts of rural America. “It was explained to us, ‘This is why I’m registered a Democrat,’ and they’d point to some reason, be it a road or something else,” explains Kentucky House majority leader Rocky Adkins, a Democrat who represents the region in a legislative chamber that is still controlled by the party of FDR and Harry Truman. Political writer Eliot Nelson heard that language when he talked with Atkins and others in Elliott County during a visit to eastern Kentucky several years ago; Nelson wrote of “a belief in the power of government to help people and improve their daily lives.”
That’s not an isolated belief. It has resonance in the great cities of the United States, and in the vast countryside of states where rural poverty—and related fears about declining services and educational options—is a harsh reality. The promise of infrastructure jobs has real meaning in rural regions, where unemployment crosses lines of race, gender, and age. The same goes for recognition that trade policies have failed urban and rural areas, and that our country is in desperate need of stronger unions and of the combination of investment and planning that extends from a national industrial policy.
Bernie Sanders sounds plenty of New Deal themes in his speeches, which frequently reference Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s programs and proposals. That may not make a lot of sense to political and media elites in Washington, but it is more than just nostalgia. There are still a lot of Democrats in rural regions from eastern Kentucky to eastern Iowa, from northern Florida to northern New Hampshire, from central Georgia to southern Arizona—places where working-class people of many races and backgrounds struggle to get by as traditional industries decline and new industries develop on suburban “campuses” or in distant lands.
Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy almost a year ago at New York City’s Four Freedoms Park, which was named after the New Deal principles FDR outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address. “President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered,” recalled the candidate. “He said there’s no mystery about what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: ‘Equality of opportunity… Jobs for those who can work… Security for those who need it… The ending of special privilege for the few… The preservation of civil liberties for all… a wider and constantly rising standard of living,’” Clinton told the crowd. “That still sounds good to me,” she added.
That still sounds good to a lot of Americans, a good many of whom are still living in places like Elliott County, Kentucky.
Candidates for the presidency get a lot of signals, especially as they close in on major-party nominations. They have much to consider. Clinton would do well to consider the results from Elliott County, not as a primary defeat but as a November challenge to renew the emphasis on FDR that initially framed her candidacy—and to borrow some more of the New Deal passion that Bernie Sanders has brought to the 2016 race.