Since George W. Bush in 2000, Appalachia has voted more and more for the Republican Party. Before then, however, the region was politically competitive. Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy solidified power for themselves and local Democrats. Families passed their Democratic identity down through the generations.
The recent Republican turn is reflective of political changes in the region and across America. In one sense, Appalachia has not become more Republican so much as Democrats have left the region behind. Economic changes have made Republican candidates more appealing to the average voter in Appalachia, and the Democratic Party’s national campaign strategy relies less and less on the region’s voters.
“The nationalization of politics [that] you didn’t have a generation ago has really hurt Democrats in the region,” said Kevin Oshnock, a high school history teacher who wrote a master’s thesis for Appalachian State University on Republican dominance in Appalachia.
In the past, state and local candidates might campaign on issues quite different from their party’s national platform. An Ohio Republican could hold views a California Republican would oppose. A North Carolina Democrat might not like their Massachusetts colleague very much. Now, however, those differences are smaller. Voters and politicians more consistently hold the views of their political party. But if someone deviates from the average Democrat or Republican nationally, these voters are ignored. Thus, Democrats are more likely to dismiss rural voters as bitter people who cling to their guns and religion, and Republicans might dismiss almost half the country as government dependents who don’t pay income tax.
That political sorting explains, in part, why Republicans do better in rural areas and why Democrats do better in urban areas. There are still many types of Republicans and Democrats, but some groups, like the moderate Blue Dog Democrats, are less common today than a generation ago. Blue Dog Democrats tended to win Appalachian elections in the past. Now, they’re more likely to identify with the Republican Party. Declining union membership in the region has also undermined the traditional base that Democrats relied upon. A Democratic type that proves popular with Appalachian voters on a large scale has yet to emerge.
“People living in rural areas are fundamentally different than people living in big cities. They have a different way of life, different values, and different economies than urban America,” Oshnock wrote. The Democratic campaign focuses on turnout in urban and suburban areas, and the issues that motivate urban and suburban voters don’t always appeal to rural voters.
That doesn’t mean Republicans have a monopoly in Appalachia. On the local level, Democrats can still win. Local elections tend to be less ideological and focus on pragmatic concerns. Many Appalachian voters are only recently Republican, so they’re less attached to voting only for Republicans. On the national level, though, Democrats don’t campaign hard in the region.
“If Democrats don’t spend money on Appalachia, and Republicans say ‘the Democrats don’t care about you,’ it’s easy to see how those things are working together,” Oshkosh said. If Democrats don’t send campaign workers to knock doors and register voters, and Joe Biden signs are rarely seen in front yards, it’s harder to win people over.
That lack of support could be costly in 2020—as it was in 2016. Parts of Appalachia can have an outsized impact on whether Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina go red or blue. If Biden loses, it could be because he didn’t pay enough attention to Appalachian or rural voters.
For the foreseeable future, Republicans will probably remain dominant in the region. The nationalization of politics that Oshnock mentioned makes it hard for Democrats to compete in Appalachia. Rural voters tend toward Republicans, and until Democrats pitch a political vision that connects with them, they’ll be at a disadvantage. Many rural voters also see Democrats as elitists who sneer at them and don’t care about the struggles they face. National politicians who belittle Appalachia as backwards or rural areas as places people should leave make it harder for Democrats in those areas to win votes.
Yet, even if national politics wasn’t so dominant, Democrats would struggle in Appalachia. Appalachian Democrats are to the right of Democrats in other parts of America.
“Democrats in the region are voting way more Republican than Democrats elsewhere,” Oshnock said. Both Democrats and independents are more willing to vote Republican, so even Appalachian Democrats are up for grabs during election season.
Oshnock noted that the rightward shift in the region comes from economic concerns and, to an extent, social issues. Voters in Appalachia are more likely to oppose free trade deals and globalization, remain suspicious of expanding immigration, and see environmental regulation as a job killer. The region already struggles with creating good jobs and growing the economy, not to mention an opioid epidemic. Politicians who acknowledge those problems are more likely to be trusted. In 2016, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sounded more like reality to people there than Hillary Clinton’s “America Is Already Great.”
“In many ways, the Democratic Party of JFK and FDR is dead. Instead of focusing on issues important to the average American worker, the modern Democratic Party is increasingly catering to a gentrified, white collar base living in coastal cities,” Oshnock said.
The more Democrats commit to white-collar workers on the coasts, the harder it will be to win Appalachia. But the Democratic Party isn’t locked out entirely. They do well in college towns in the region. Teacher strikes in West Virginia show the power of unions isn’t entirely gone. And the egalitarian, anti-elitist streak in Appalachia could guide reformist Democrats to a new platform to win in the region. They already have a foothold.
To do so, however, Democrats must consider the needs and priorities of Appalachian voters. The party must change instead of expecting the people to change. That’s not impossible, especially if Republican dominance is taken for granted by the GOP. But it will be tough. Fresh, local faces will have to fight to make Appalachia politically competitive. Figuring out what Appalachians want their future to look like, and responding to the beliefs they hold and the problems they face, is key.
Republicans can’t take Democratic incompetence in the region for granted, either. It took decades for the GOP to overcome the coalitions created by FDR and JFK. They could lose Appalachia again if they don’t keep up with the changes that made Appalachia red in the first place.
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Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.