Bernie Sanders could notch a small victory Tuesday against front-running Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton in West Virginia, where a pledge the former U.S. secretary of state made two months ago to kill coal miners’ jobs in favor of renewable energy continues to haunt her.
The senator for Vermont is leading Clinton slightly in state polls despite deep-rooted ties she and her husband have to the Mountain State. Clinton — with a huge advantage in nationwide polls and pledged delegates — is still poised to win the Democratic nomination.
West Virginia and Nebraska also will host Republican primaries Tuesday, but the race is effectively sewn up for real estate mogul Donald Trump.
“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Clinton said in March at a Columbus, Ohio, event.
She had added that she doesn’t intend to abandon workers “who did the best they could to produce the energy we relied on” and apologized directly last week to an out-of-work foreman who confronted her in Williamson, West Virginia, but the general sentiment hasn’t played well in coal country.
“That was really a devastating comment,” said Robert DiClerico, a professor emeritus of political science at West Virginia University. He said he believes Clinton’s remark more than any other factor has boosted Sanders.
A MetroNews poll last week showed Sanders with a 4 percentage point edge over Clinton in a state where she handily defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.
There are 37 Democratic delegates at stake.
The state has eight superdelegates; six are pledged to Clinton.
The West Virginia State Democratic Party leadership is split. The group’s chair, Belinda Biafore, is backing Clinton, while its vice chair, Christopher Regan, has endorsed Sanders.
The eighth superdelegate has not said who she is supporting.
West Virginia has a somewhat older population, which may lean toward Clinton, but also fewer black voters, which may be beneficial for Sanders, Regan said.
Sanders has fired up populists, hosting two massive rallies last week in Charleston and Morgantown, and delivering remarks on rural poverty in McDowell County. Clinton last week held a discussion in Charleston on substance abuse and met in Williamson with mine workers.
Meanwhile, Trump told supporters in Charleston last week that they need not vote on Tuesday — a comment that DiClerico said won’t make Trump’s would-be Republican allies “further down in the ticket particularly happy.”
The billionaire businessman was boasting about his presumptive nominee status following a victory in Indiana and the exits of rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
“You don’t have to vote anymore,” Trump said. “Save your vote for the general election, OK? Forget this one, the primary’s done.”
In Nebraska, a political expert lamented that the state just missed a chance to hold a competitive GOP primary for the first time since Richard Nixon ran in 1968.
“There’s a constant sort of gnashing of the teeth about how we need to move our primary date up to be part of the action,” said Paul Landow, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “This time around, the Republicans thought that they were going to be in the mix, but things shut down just before Nebraska.”
Nebraska Republican Party executive director Bud Synhorst said the state legislature has floated a bill to move up the GOP nominating contest.
Nebraskan Democrats held their caucus on March 5.