My quest to find the soul of the Democratic Party ran smack through a state where a convicted felon won 41% of the primary vote against President Obama this year. The country roads were taking me to Morgantown, West Virginia, where I planned to knock off state #42 in an unrelated quest to party in all 50 states. For this leg of the trip I was joined by Jack, a photographer and radio technician on his way to Charlotte to run a show broadcasting from the Convention. After a bucolic drive through the rivers and mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, we pulled into town around 7pm. Madness was in the air. The University of West Virginia had just defeated Marshall to kick off the college football season. But the football team was not the pride of the city.
“Morgantown was just named the #1 party town in America,” explained one of the liquor store employees as he charted the city’s various bars and clubs. The wail of sirens and ease with which the liquor store let a girl who couldn’t remember her own birthday purchase alcohol were good indicators.
We spun out of the liquor store parking lot and proceeded to the home of Sarah, my Couchsurfing host. I hadn’t been hosted by a Couchsurfer since the Great American Road Trip of 2010, when I learned that exchanging good stories and a love of the road was not limited to international exchanges. I turned right at the graveyard, and there I was. The air felt damp and electric. West Virginia.
Over pasta, wine and bourbon we told tales and learned about the weird dynamics of West Virginia. The Democratic Party’s big dog was Joe Machin, a governor turned Senator with such little love for Barack Obama that he had yet to endorse him, and was making considerable hay about his refusal to attend the Convention. “He’s not even a Democrat, the only thing he’s got going for him is John Raese is a nutjob,” Sarah’s neighbor lamented, referring to the carpet-bagging Republican who was trailing Machin by 40 points according to the latest polls.
On life in Morgantown, the party was more bullish. “The #1 college party town in the United States,” two of the guests told me over the course of the dinner. This statistic came courtesy of the Princeton Review, which gifted the University of West Virginia the “#1 party school” title for the third time (after 1997 and 2007), and also awarded them the top spot in the “Lots of beer” category.
Downtown Morgantown was frenetic and definitely collegiate. Hordes roamed the streets, and lines circled every corner club. We finally found a palatable-looking dive bar, but were rebuffed at the door. “Get in line behind everyone else,” the bouncer barked. That’s when I noticed a dozen or so weary souls waiting along the windows, IDs in hand. Call me an elitist, but waiting in line to get into a bar is beneath me. A middle-aged Asian woman I stopped on the street eventually directed me to the Morgantown Brewing Company, a 30-something oasis with outdoor seating and great local brews (Technicolor was a particular hit).
At that point we were joined by Randy, a West Virginia delegate, sometimes peddler of moonshine, general booster for the state of West Virginia and West Virginia Democratic Party. He started off by apologizing for not having any moonshine. “We drank it all during the pregame. We’ve been up partying since 7am. Did you know that Morgantown is the #1 college party town? This is where greatness is learned and couches are burned.” The sirens were likely in response to the couch fires set after UVW football victories.
We soon got to business. “I don’t think it’s about race. What Democrats don’t understand about West Virginia is how important coal is to people here. Work at the mine comes and goes, but when mines are running just about anybody can make $70,000-80,000 a year. And without the mine, these same people would be lucky to make a quarter of that working at Wal-Mart. That’s why when people tell them President Obama is a threat to the coal mining industry, they’re going to turn against him.”
“But wait a second,” I countered. “Barack Obama’s position on coal is not noticeably different from Bill Clinton’s, Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s. All of those guys were able to compete in West Virginia.” Randy paused. “That’s probably where being black and having a Muslim-sounding name comes in.”
“But Machin’s up 40 points. Doesn’t that give him the cover to, you know, actually be a Democrat?”
Randy whistled. “Supporting Barack Obama could cost you 40 points in a hurry.” Randy recounted Obama telling a 2008 fundraiser crowd in San Francisco that he would “get rid of coal tomorrow if he could.” That audio was sent to voicemails all over West Virginia, and Obama plummeted from down 4 points in the polls to out of contention. This anecdote is partially true. In fact, candidate Obama’s unwieldy position on coal can be summarized as “he hates coal, but knows America needs it.” Here’s the actual quote he gave to the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, discussing the future of coal after he passed cap and trade:
So, if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It’s just that, it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing that I’ve said, with a respect to coal — I haven’t been some coal booster — what I have said is, that, for us to take coal off the table as a ideological matter, as opposed to saying, if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it. You know, that I think is the right approach.
Obama’s deficit did slide from mid-single digits to 13 points by election day, and he trails Mitt Romney, not Mr. Appalachia himself, by 14. In an economically depressed state like West Virginia, President Obama is trapped between alienating environmentalists, who already have much to be displeased about, and West Virginians, who are suspicious of Obama to begin with.
The night ended on an upbeat note. I asked for a scenic route to Charlotte, and Randy recommended the New River Valley Gorge. “Some call it the Grand Canyon of the East.” After knocking back another at the bar, I walked home, with only eight states left in the journey to 50. Back at Sarah’s I slumped onto a backyard patio couch and fell asleep outdoors for the first time since Bonnaroo.