(Charleston, West Virginia) -- As many of my loyal readers know, I moved this past week. I am now covering politics for West Virginia Media Holdings, a statewide consortium of four TV stations and one newspaper. When I covered the 2008 Presidential campaign, about which I later wrote a book, I spent several days covering the West Virginia Primary in May, 2008. What follows is a reprise of my coverage that week:
That journey (the Presidential campaign) took her (Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY) next to West Virginia, so I bought a plane ticket to Charleston, as well.
West Virginia is a state of contradictions. In many places, it is lush, green, mountainous and breathtakingly beautiful. On the other hand, it is one of the poorest states in the nation, with pockets of heartbreaking poverty. The state is fairly conservative, and usually votes Republican for President. Even many of the Democrats here are moderate-to-conservative. Some polls indicated Clinton led Obama by a staggering 40 points, which I found hard to believe. Still, Obama’s recent comments about “bitter” rural Americans who “clung to guns or religion” were not playing well here; and people were still talking about Obama’s now former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his infamous “God Damn America” sermon. In short, this was not “Obama Country.”
Hillary Clinton (photo above) was now making the case that she could win in places in November that Obama could not. She had won three of the biggest states - Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania - and she argued that she could beat John McCain in such places as West Virginia and Indiana. It was a pretty compelling point, even if she was still behind Obama in overall delegates.
For now, the immediate task was West Virginia, where polls had Clinton way ahead. Despite that, the Obama campaign folks were working hard to get people to the polls. When I arrived on Monday, both candidates were still campaigning in other states. No matter! There were still plenty of voters and volunteers to speak with.
Now the news media and the general public have an obsession with polls. When I speak at luncheons during a political season, I am always asked two questions: 1) Who is ahead? and 2) Why are there so many polls? The questions contradict each other. Personally, I love polls and I hate polls! They can be a road map to what is about to happen; and they can be incredibly wrong. In 1983, the night before the Chicago Mayor's race, polls showed Richard Daley, Jr., and Jane Byrne way ahead of an obscure black Congressman from Chicago, Harold Washington. Washington won (as I had predicted at the time, saying that polls inadvertently under-survey minorities).
Even this year in New Hampshire, one poll had Barack Obama up 13 points, fresh off his win in Iowa five days earlier. Hillary Clinton won, going away. So, polls indicating a 30- to 40-point Clinton lead for Tuesday in West Virginia made me suspicious. We would see!
With neither candidate in town that night, I stopped by their respective state campaign headquarters in Charleston. Both were buzzing with activity, with last-minute phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
Obama spokesman Tom Bowen was not giving any quarter, based on the polls. "It's a clear choice," Bowen said. "Senator Obama, or four more years of Bush's policies."
Hard at work canvassing door-to-door today was Obama supporter Ahmed Mongi. Ahmed had just become a U.S. citizen on April 7, after immigrating here from Tanzania in 1983.
"I came here to get an education," Mongi said. "I'm a college grad of West Virginia University." Why did he choose Obama for his first vote as an American? "The message of hope resonates with me," Mongi says. "The fact that he is new in Washington means he has a better chance of changing business."
Mongi's big-issue concerns were ending the war in Iraq and providing better health care for veterans. All that aside, he just plain liked Obama: "I think he's got charisma," Mongi said.
About five blocks away at Clinton headquarters in downtown Charleston, it was just as busy, as volunteers and staff worked phone banks, urging people to get out the vote. Organizer Cory Waldron was just 20 years old and was taking time off from college to work on the Clinton campaign. "She has intelligent, well-thought-out policies," Waldron said. "Obviously, she has a true concern about the middle class and the state of our nation," he added, "and I truly believe she is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate."
It occurred to me that now at age 20, Waldron had been just four years old when Clinton's husband was elected President. Does he even remember? "For some reason I remember the saxophone [Bill Clinton played] on Arsenio Hall," he says. I told Cory that I was four years old when John Kennedy was killed and I remembered it pretty well. Even at age four the political-junkie thing can start!
I asked Waldron whether the staff was supporting Hillary for VP yet, should she fall short of the nomination. "We're not entertaining that possibility right now," he said. "We're still playing to win!" Echoing that thought was Clinton volunteer Angela Reed, from Fayette County, West Virginia. She said Clinton had much more experience than Obama, and that was what truly mattered.
"I believe she's qualified. She can take care of our problems," Reed said. "It's a big factor," she added. "I think she's a good problem-solver. I think she has particular experience in foreign policy. I don't think Obama has that," Reed said.
Both campaign offices promised to be open until midnight, doing any and all last-minute work.
West Virginia polls opened promptly at 6:30 Tuesday morning; and, if the lines at Chamberlain Elementary School in Charleston were any indication, this could be another record turnout in one of the most hotly-contested primary seasons in American history.
Among those voting today was Daryl Huffman, age 20, who was voting for the very first time. "I voted for Hillary," Huffman said. "I just really like her views, especially on the environment. That's what I am studying in school." Huffman attended the nearby University of Charleston and was majoring in environmental biology. Her vote had not been an easy choice. "I like Obama, as well," she said, "but I feel like she has a better chance running against McCain."
The debate over McCain and about whom to support if Clinton did not win was weighing on others today. There was concern within the Obama campaign that he could not attract enough white, blue-collar voters - voters who could bolt the Democratic Party for John McCain if Obama should be the nominee.
The Obama campaign would have mixed feelings meeting retired coal miner Thomas A. Ward, Sr. Today he voted for Hillary Clinton, saying "I think personally, myself, if we get Obama in there, we got a lot of problems down the pike."
Ward said Obama lacked experience. Ward thought Obama was trying to be another John Kennedy, someone who makes inspiring speeches but can't follow through. Clinton had far more real experience, according to Ward; but, if Clinton failed to win the nomination, Ward would support Obama. "No, I won't back McCain," Ward said. "I'll support Obama, and my union will, too." Ward was a member of the United Mine Workers; and if that union endorsed Obama, there might be far more white voters in blue-collar jobs backing Obama, as well.
Democratic Party leaders knew Obama needed that support to win West Virginia in November. West Virginia almost always picks the White House winner, and no Democrat had won the Presidency without taking West Virginia since 1916.
Young George Chamberlain came out to vote with his dad this morning in Charleston. They were Obama supporters. Chamberlain was a student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, but was home on summer break. Of Obama, he said, "I feel like he's a great candidate for change. He's a real honorable guy, a person who can change America in a positive direction."
Turnout was described as record breaking; and when polls closed at 8 p.m., the results did not take long to come in. I was at the Charleston Civic Center awaiting the returns at Hillary Clinton’s planned victory rally. When she was declared the winner, the crowd began chanting: "It's not over!It's not over!"
Clinton captured the West Virginia Democratic primary by a huge margin; and, while her campaign for the Presidential nomination remained a statistical long shot, she was still in it. Clinton won West Virginia by a whopping 67 to 26 percent over Barack Obama.
According to CNN exit polls, Clinton won over 70 percent of female voters; she also won over 72 percent of white voters without college degrees. In other words, Clinton won a landslide of working class, blue-collar, white voters. She did the same thing in Ohio and Pennsylvania, raising serious questions about whether Sen. Barack Obama could capture those same voters should he be the fall nominee. There were concerns among Democrats that some of those "Reagan Democrats" would bolt the party as they did in 1980 and 1984 and would support the Republican - in this case, the more moderate Sen. John McCain.
To a roaring crowd, Clinton laid out her case as to why she would be the better fall candidate. "We won in states that we must be prepared to win in November," she said (alluding to key states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and - yes - West Virginia) if the Democrats want to take back the White House." Clinton won all four of those primaries and by decisive margins. "I am strong enough for this challenge," Clinton said. "You know I never give up!" And the crowd roared again!
Clinton did not speak ill of her opponent, Barack Obama, who was still the front runner. "I deeply admire Senator Obama, but our case is stronger," she said. She also commended Obama on the quality of his campaign. She added "I will work my heart out for the Democratic nominee of our party, so we have a Democratic President." Whether this was all to position herself for a vice-presidential selection should her run for the top job fail, only Mrs. Clinton knew.
Jim Cochran, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran who backed Clinton, hoped for a brokered convention in Denver that August. "I hope it gets to the (convention) floor, like the old days," Cochran said. "That's when the Clintons will bring out their charm!" Cochran's desired scenario was possible, though not likely. However, if neither candidate had enough delegates and Super Delegates by August, there could be a floor fight at the convention. Much of this rested on the five remaining primaries and the disputed Michigan and Florida delegations. Clinton needed many in those groups to go her way if she were to win. Again it was possible, but not probable, at that point.
Cochran was supporting Sen. Clinton because West Virginia had seen better economic times when Bill Clinton was in office from 1993 to 2001. "We need someone to bring the budget back," he said, "and I am a Vietnam veteran, but it's time to end this [Iraq] war."
As for Clinton taking the VP spot on the ticket should she lose the nomination, Cochran said, "I think it would be a 'dream ticket,' but he (Obama) has got to make that decision."
The night rang with shouts of "Madame President! Madame President!" throughout the crowd of hundreds of Clinton supporters. They hoped to ride another day, or perhaps longer.
I was starving. Charleston will probably never make the cover of “Bon Appétit” magazine as a culinary scene, nor were many restaurants open late. My only real choice was a 24-hour IHOP, which was essentially a truck stop, located next to my hotel. When I arrived about 11 p.m., I got one of the last seats available. The restaurant was packed to the gills with long-haul truck drivers and a lot of other people in “Clinton for President” tee shirts. Most of the patrons were white.
A short time later, approximately twenty more customers showed up. All were in “Obama 2008” shirts; and most of them were African-American. Now, things were already tense in the packed restaurant, because it was short staffed. I suspect they aren’t normally this busy at this time of night. At best, there were two waitresses and two people in the kitchen. Orders were slow, and the IHOP employees were shouting at each other. While some tables were clearing after people finished eating, it was all moving quite slowly; and some people were getting a bit impatient.
What happened next? Nothing.
Forty years earlier, this might have been a real powder keg, with a mix of racial and political tension. You add in the fact that people were tired, hungry and - perhaps - emotional over the primary; and it had all the potential for lighting a short fuse.
Suddenly, someone from the Obama camp saw a friend in the Clinton group and went over and gave a congratulatory hand shake. That broke the ice. Then someone cracked a joke, and suddenly everyone was laughing. Strangers were greeting strangers. People started chatting about what happened at a certain precinct or a phone bank, or on a newscast, and on and on it went. I was kind of sad to finish my meal and leave, but some kind folks in the Obama group needed my table, plus I had more stories to write. This was turning into a very friendly party, and I wished I could have stayed
After all the racial tension and political violence I had seen as a child, especially during the 1968 convention in Chicago, I was so pleased to witness what was playing out before my eyes in West Virginia. I say that because earlier in the day I spoke with two white men who were backing Hillary Clinton, but were not planning to support Obama if he won the nomination. “I can’t vote for no black man,” one of the men said, as the other shook his head from side to side. It was the only time in the entire year-long campaign that I encountered this attitude. The times had changed a lot!
The nomination was by no means settled after West Virginia, and the Oregon and Kentucky primaries loomed just one week away.
This account is from my 2009 book: "Age of Obama: A Reporter's Journey with Clinton, McCain and Obama in the Making of the President 2008" (Nimble Books, LLC)
(c) 2015, Mark Curtis Media, LLC
Photo Courtesy: Mark Curtis Media archives