The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country”

Last month, I wrote an essay about the media’s overuse of Appalachia – and particularly West Virginia – as a mythic Trump Country during the election cycle. I used the word ‘mythic’ not to deny the existence of Appalachian Trump supporters, but to instead underscore that writers and photographers from prestige outlets relied on mythic qualities of Appalachia and its working class to give their pieces traction and to shore up an emerging narrative about economic anxiety and the white working class.  This strategy, I concluded, was historically consistent with the broad “othering” of Appalachia as a place that represents the failures of American progress and helped explain why writers preferred to profile Appalachian Trump supporters as opposed to Trump supporters in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, or other geographies that might complicate that narrative.

McDowell County, West Virginia, received the most press attention and I’d like to quickly revisit my original essay now that we know how McDowell County voted. But first, let’s recap the highlights of “McDowell County as Trump Country.”

Looking at this list of pieces, and the arguments each makes about McDowell County, you might be surprised to learn that the county yielded just 4,614 votes for Donald Trump (and 1,429 for Hillary Clinton). Yes, out of 17,508 registered voters in McDowell County, only 26.35% voted for Trump (8.16% for Clinton). What is true is that 74% of ballots cast in the election went in favor of Trump, but McDowell County also had the lowest voter turn out in the state of West Virginia at 36.24%.

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For the sake of comparison, I looked at election results in a randomly selected county in Wyoming. Johnson County, Wyoming, experienced an almost 100% voter turnout, with 3,477 ballots favoring Trump for a total of 4,485 ballots cast. This means that 78% of all registered voters cast their vote for Trump. I even, quite accidentally deep in a google fugue state, looked at the election results for McDowell County, North Carolina, and found them to be more indicative of the “Trump Country” phenomenon than McDowell County, West Virginia.

Again, the purpose of unpacking these results and how they stack up to the larger cultural trend of looking at Appalachia to understand Donald Trump isn’t to deny that people in Appalachia support Donald Trump and that they do so of their own free will, however we might choose to interpret their choices. Over at the blog for the Labor and Working Class History Association, historian Daniel Sidorick argues that “the  media got what it wanted” by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about West Virginian Trump supporters. That’s not what I want to do at all, although please take a look at his short essay for additional information about primary results. Instead, what I want to do is simply offer up McDowell County as a strong example of how a narrative can snowball by hitting the right mix of unqualified cultural forecasting and consumer demand.

The example of McDowell County – the Trump Country that wasn’t – demonstrates that it is vitally important for national news outlets to pull back on coverage that’s generated in isolation from regional media and other regional experts. Anne Trubek, the director of Belt Publishing – an organization supporting independent writers that focus on the Rust Belt –  also makes the case for this in a recent post-election essay. She argues “too many national stories about the Rust Belt fail to reference or link to important reporting that has already been done by local and regional outlets,” and this is certainly true of Appalachia as well.

I’ll repeat what I argued in my original essay, and that is coverage and analysis of Appalachia must include the perspectives of urban Appalachians, non-white Appalachians and individuals from other minority groups, Appalachian in- and out- migrants, environmentalists, and millennials. It must go beyond gritty and sad pictures. It must be more of “us” and less of “them,” and it must be more than an elegy.

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6 thoughts on “The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country”

  1. This follow up article demonstrates deficiencies in the media which the main stream media seriously needs to correct. It also clarifies that working people are searching for help. Some but not all responded to the rhetoric of Mr. Trump perhaps out of fear or a feeling of being left out. These are concerns which need to be addressed by our government. Since I now reside in the northwest I am not surprised by the vote in Wyoming. I doubt many of these voters fit the imagined concept of “white working class” as implied by the media for trump county. If they don’t, then what was their motivation for supporting him?

    Thank you for both of your informative articles.

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  2. I still don’t think it had as much to do with embracing Trump as it did rejecting Clinton. Neither party’s mainstream candidates have ever done anything for this region. Sooner or later a pillow case becomes unwashable and you have to by a new one. Ya know?

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  3. Bob Baker

    The population of McDowell is less than 20,000 these days. Although I doubt the true voting turnout reached the 78% of the Wyoming County mentioned, it almost certainly over 50%. This is a result of failure to purge voters who pass away or move away. In WV, people are supposed to be purged from from the rolls when they have not voted in (I think) eight straight elections. Some counties do a better job of purging than others; and McDowell County may be doing a fine job. A lot of people have moved out or died in the last eight years (two elections per year, every other year). However, I suspect that they are not purging promptly. I am not suggesting that there is voter fraud going on; only that WV turnout information grossly understates actual voter turnout.

    I think you are correct that the national media is off base in its analysis; but I think that McDowell County clearly was a Trump County. The narrative about Obama’s War on Coal, and Hilary Clinton’s complicity was effectively pushed in West Virginia, especially in McDowell County where many coal jobs have been lost. Trump was the beneficiary.

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    1. Your point about registration rolls is a good one, and is something that I considered writing this after the election. Population decline is an issue in Appalachia and it’s likely that a number of registered voters are no longer circulating in McDowell as you say. Since I couldn’t reconcile that in a more precise way, we looked at electorate percentages across West Virginia and McDowell isn’t wildly different than other counties. In other words, percentages of adult population versus registered voters exhibits proportions that are consistent across the state.

      To your larger point – that McDowell County was clearly Trump Country – it’s important to look at primary results as well. Sanders receives more votes in the McDowell primary than Trump by a significant margin (and I am aware there are fewer registered Republicans in the county) and then loses the nomination. Roughly 50% of Democratic voters, in turn, simply do not show up again to vote for Clinton in the general election and this is a phenomenon that only happens in West Virginia coal country (in Mingo, for example, the number is 73%, but in Greenbrier it’s around 30% and in Ohio it’s 14%). The media might have easily latched on to “Sanders Country” narratives – and a few left-leaning sites did – but it went in another direction and I’ve speculated as to why that is elsewhere. I won’t even argue if you call it “Anti-Hillary Country” or something similar. But, I am comfortable stating that McDowell Country was not Trump Country in the way the media purported and a reasonable interpretation of voting statistics also bears that out.

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  4. Topper Sherwood

    This struck me as a trend directly after the Democratic primary, when an ABC News exit poll (of 700+) “WV voters” immediately broadcast that *many* WV Bernie voters would be voting for Trump on Election Day.

    I looked at other questions on the poll — a surprisingly large proportion of these respondents also told pollsters that they “have a coal industry worker” in their households. What?! Representative of *most* WV voters? No way.

    For me, that poll – widely quoted in US media – helped to nail down the “Bernie=Trump in rural America” meme some time before Hillary’s primary win – and continued after her November loss. http://www.toppersherwood.com

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