After a tumultuous week in which I was outed as “John Miller,” Donald Trump’s publicist (He’s a tremendously good boss! With huge hands!), the nation’s political press hordes are descending on our old Kentucky home to cover this week’s presidential primary matchup between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If you listen closely, you can hear the conventional wisdom narrative slowly gaining volume: If Clinton loses or narrowly ekes out a win in a state where history and demographics favor her strongly, Bernie-mentum will once again be sweeping the nation.
Allow me to preemptively call foul. Tuesday’s Kentucky presidential primary means nothing. And while I beseech you to go to the polls — there are a number of other important elections statewide — I ask you to repeat after me (and Bill Murray):
It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!
While it is in no one’s interest to admit this — the media and both campaigns are conspiring to generate continued interest in the race — the Democratic primary is indeed over: Barring some Red Sea-type miracle, Hillary Clinton will be the party’s nominee for President. Simple math mitigates against her losing the lead in pledged delegates, and the Sanders’ campaign notion that there will be a massive switch in superdelegate commitments is implausible to the point of ridiculousness.
Those elected officials and senior party operatives who cast superdelegate votes would be hard-pressed to mount a concerted challenge to overturn the mandate of the popular vote. But in the rare case in which they would, it is simply not imaginable that they would cast their lot with a candidate whose ideological bent would help put Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (Current polls be damned: Most senior party insiders believe that the country is likely not ready to elect a Democratic Socialist.) More significantly, especially at this high political wire, relationships matter: Bill and Hillary Clinton have been working this crowd for nearly three decades. So even if Sanders should upset Clinton on her favorable turf, it simply won’t impress them sufficiently to switch sides.
As the dean of Kentucky political journalism Al Cross has been pontificating this past week (and big props to the sexagenarian for his mad tweeting skills), there are a significant proportion of registered Democrats in Kentucky who really aren’t Democrats. While Team Blue holds a 60 to 40% registration margin, that’s almost the inverse of state voting habits in federal elections, in which the Commonwealth has been reliably red for decades. There are many thousands of voters who stay Democratic out of habit — or to vote in contested primaries in local elections — who simply will never support a Democratic presidential candidate in a general election.
As Cross maintains, many of these registered Democrats fit the Donald Trump voter prototype: older, whiter, less educated, lower-to-middle-income. Perhaps they find Sanders’ angry, anti-establishment rhetoric appealing. Perhaps they will cast a vote against “Crooked Hillary,” the current bÃªte noire of The Donald’s worldview. But make no mistake, these Trump Democrats aren’t embracing a liberal policy agenda. And they certainly shouldn’t be counted on for demonstrating a national Democratic trend on behalf of the Vermont Senator.
Hillary’s biggest Achilles heel is the issue that’s served as the coup de grace for recent GOP efforts to turn the state red: the so-called “War on Coal.” Republican propagandists have brilliantly and effectively laid the industry’s death spiral exclusively at the feet of President Barack Obama’s regulatory proposals, even though the mineral’s declining competitiveness is more the result of complex economic factors that long preceded the current Administration. Democrats, meanwhile, have failed to elaborate upon this more nuanced counter-narrative, while their allies in environmental activism have enthusiastically and publicly cheered coal’s demise. Accordingly, the profound emotional tie many Kentuckians feel toward the black rock — as well as their jaundiced resentment toward outsider elites who want to deprive them of their geological birthright — has helped transform the once reliably Democratic coalfields in Appalachia and the Western plains into a Republican Maginot Line.
Clinton certainly didn’t help matters when she told a March CNN town hall that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” While she quickly followed up that statement by assuring coal miners that they “would not be forgotten,” the soundbite went viral. While she issued an apology nearly two months later, and actually laid out a promising path forward for central Appalachia that includes clean coal as a bridge to a revitalized post-coal economy, the bumper-sticker gaffe stuck, and Democrats won’t have the time or resources to drive home a compelling counter-message in the short term. So expect many coal-invested Kentuckians to case a protest vote against Hillary, in favor of Bernie Sanders…who repeatedly has claimed that climate change is the greatest threat to our national security.
The GOP has effectively captured the coal issue for the time being; at least until Kentucky policymakers finally get past the rhetoric and political posturing to develop economic development alternatives in regions that have been devastated by coal’s decline. As a result, unless Donald Trump’s campaign collapses under its own weight (which frankly is quite possible in today’s political climate), no Democrat will be turning the Bluegrass State blue in November.
And as goes Kentucky…so goes West Virginia. That’s it. So the fact that many pro-coal voters might reject Hillary on Tuesday and hand over a primary election to Bernie has no significance in the rest of the country that doesn’t give a whit about our black rock.
To those of you visitors who follow the sport of politics, welcome back to Kentucky. I hope you enjoy a good bourbon and our lovely spring weather. But if you want to watch a meaningful horse race, head over to Churchill Downs. Because when it comes to counting the votes and reading the tea leaves from Tuesday’s presidential primary, it just doesn’t matter.