Like most people in Mingo County, West Virginia, Leonard Simpson is a lifelong Democrat. But given a choice between Barack Obama and John McCain in November, the 67-year-old retired coalminer would vote Republican.
By Andrew Ward
“I heard that Obama is a Muslim and his wife’s an atheist,” said Mr Simpson, drawing on a cigarette outside the fire station in Williamson, a coalmining town of 3,400 people surrounded by lush wooded hillsides.
Mr Simpson’s remarks help explain why Mr Obama is trailing Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, by 40 percentage points ahead of Tuesday’s primary election in the heavily white and rural state, according to recent opinion polls.
A landslide victory for Mrs Clinton in West Virginia will do little to improve her fading hopes of winning the Democratic nomination, because Mr Obama has an almost insurmountable lead in the overall race.
But Tuesday’s contest is likely to reinforce Mrs Clinton’s argument that she would be the stronger opponent for Mr McCain in November, and raise fresh doubts about whether the US is ready to elect its first black president.
Occupying a swathe of the Appalachian Mountains on the threshold between the Bible Belt and the Rust Belt, West Virginia is a swing state that voted twice for George W. Bush but backed Democrats in six of the eight prior presidential elections.
No Democrat has been elected to the White House without carrying West Virginia since 1916, yet Mr Obama appears to have little chance of winning there in November. Recent opinion polls indicate that Mrs Clinton would narrowly beat Mr McCain in the state but Mr Obama would lose by nearly 20 percentage points.
West Virginia is hostile territory for Mr Obama because it has few of the African-Americans and affluent, college-educated whites who provide his strongest support. The state has the lowest college graduation rate in the US, the second lowest median household income, and one of the highest proportions of white residents, at 96 per cent.
A visit to Mingo County, a Democratic stronghold in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, reveals the scale of Mr Obama’s challenge – not only in West Virginia but in white, working-class communities across the US. With a gun shop on its main street and churches dotted throughout the town, Williamson is the kind of community evoked by Mr Obama’s controversial comments last month about “bitter” small-town voters who “cling to guns or religion”.
“If he is the nominee, the Democrats have no chance of winning West Virginia,” said Missy Endicott, a 40- year-old school administrator. “He doesn’t understand ordinary Americans.”
Ms Endicott was among roughly 500 people who crammed into the Williamson Fire Department building on Friday to attend a rally by Bill Clinton, the former president. He told them his wife represented “people like you, in places like this”, and urged voters to turn out in record numbers on Tuesday to send a message to the “higher-type people” who were trying to force her out of the race.
Local leaders said Mr Clinton was the most important visitor to Williamson since John F. Kennedy passed through during the 1960 election campaign. Mr Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia primary that year was a crucial step towards proving his electability as the first Catholic president. Nearly five decades later, the state appears less willing to help Mr Obama break down barriers to the White House.
None of the 22 Democrats interviewed by the Financial Times at the Clinton rally would commit themselves to voting for Mr Obama if he became the nominee, and half said they definitely would not. The depth of opposition is particularly striking considering that Mingo County is one of the most Democratic places in West Virginia, having cast about 85 per cent of its votes for the party in the 2006 midterm elections. If Mr Obama cannot win there in November, he has little chance of carrying the state.
Most people questioned said they mistrusted Mr Obama because of doubts about his patriotism and “values”, stemming from his cosmopolitan background, his exotic name and the controversy surrounding “anti-American” sermons by Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor. Several people said they believed he was a Muslim – an unfounded rumour that has circulated on the internet for months – despite the contradiction with his 20-year membership of Mr Wright’s church in Chicago. Others mentioned his refusal to wear a Stars and Stripes badge and controversial remarks by his wife, Michelle, who described America as “mean” and implied that she had never been proud of the US until her husband ran for president.
Conservative commentators have questioned Mr Obama’s patriotism for months and the issue is expected to be one of the Republicans’ main lines of attack if he wins the nomination. “The American people want a president who loves their country as much as they do,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist. Obama supporters believe patriotism is being used as code to harness racist sentiment.
Josh Fry, a 24-year-old ambulance driver from Williamson, insisted he was not racist but said he would feel more comfortable with Mr McCain, the 71-year-old Vietnam war hero, in the White House. “I want someone who is a full-blooded American as president,” he said.