CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Whatever happens here on Election Day will be shaped by West Virginians’ evolving views on party loyalty.
The last tally by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office said 45 percent of registered West Virginia voters are Democrats, almost 31 percent are Republicans and about 21 percent are unaffiliated.
Back in 1996 — the last time West Virginians voted for a Democrat for president — Democrats led state party affiliation with 63 percent. Republicans had 30 percent back then. And all others — unaffiliated and third party alike — were lumped in at about 7 percent.
That means overall Democratic Party registration remains the majority in West Virginia but is trending downward. Overall Republican Party registration has gone up. And unaffiliated voters have been on a rocket ride.
“This state has been in slow-motion transition from overwhelmingly Democrat to solidly Republican,” said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan. “I date it to 2000 with (Republican Shelley Moore) Capito breaking up the dominance on the congressional level. Since then we’ve seen a a steady increase in Republican and a loss in Democrat — whichever one you want to emphasize.”
So, where West Virginians state government office holders were once dominated by Democrats, that trend is certainly becoming less predictable.
The governor has been a Democrat every year since Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood lost to Democrat Bob Wise in 2000. This year’s seat is up for grabs with Democrat Jim Justice, a billionaire businessman, facing off against Republican Bill Cole, a car dealer and current state Senate president.
West Virginia’s three congressional seats all turned Republican in 2014 when Evan Jenkins defeated Democratic incumbent Nick Joe Rahall in the 3rd District. Republican Alex Mooney also won for the first time that year in District 2, but he took over a seat vacated by incumbent Republican Shelley Moore Capito when she moved on to the U.S. Senate.
This year, Jenkins, Mooney and David McKinley of the 1st District are dominating in fundraising and spending against their Democratic opponents. All of the races are viewed as solid Republican by political forecast outlets like Cook Political Report.
West Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate flipped Republican in 2014 after 80 years of Democratic control. Republicans enter Election Day with an 18-16 lead in the Senate so almost any individual result could maintain or flip the balance there.
“We’re finding a change over leaving the Democratic Party and going to the Republican Party,” Rupp said. “That too is going to alter the dynamics of West Virginia politics that we’ve been used to for generations.”
On Thursday, when the Secretary of State’s office released early voting numbers — which appeared to be on a record-breaking pace for West Virginia — the party affiliation break-down reflected the state’s registration trend.
Forty-seven percent of West Virginia early voters were Democrats, 36 percent were Republicans and 13 percent were unaffiliated.
“Party, while still important, does not have the equity for voters that it did 15 or 20 years ago,” said Rex Repass, owner of Repass Research and Strategy, which produces the MetroNews West Virginia Poll.
“The brand ID of either party is not as important in voting as it was in previous cycles, years ago. That doesn’t mean that party isn’t important, that positions that parties take are not important. They are. Party, while still important, does not have the cache that parties did 20 years ago.”
Repass noted high cross-over voting in both parties at the presidential level.
In the governor’s race, where the MetroNews West Virginia Poll has shown a consistent lead for Justice, there was also an interesting crossover dynamic: Justice was supported by 20 percent of Republicans, while 15 percent of Democrats said they would vote for Cole. Justice was leading Cole by 15 percentage points among independents on Oct. 19, the last day the poll was released.
Also, Cole voters were more uncertain about their choice: 29 percent of likely voters said they would definitely or probably vote for the Republican nominee, while 44 percent of Justice voters said they would definitely or probably vote for the Democratic nominee.
“In the governor’s race, you have two candidates that are essentially both businesspeople; one (Justice) used to be a Republican,” Repass noted. “To me that’s more about individuals and less about party.”
Straight ticket voting is no longer a factor on ballots for the first time in West Virginia this year. But the party registration trends mean it might not have made much difference for many voters anyway.
“They’re looking at how the candidates are speaking to issues that are important to them,” Repass said. “We know West Virginia is a socially conservative state, fiscally somewhat conservative but also a thread of populism. That independent voter may be looking for someone who speaks across the aisle, what best meets the needs of West Virginians.”
Many West Virginia Democrats have criss-crossed their ballots for a long time, rather than voting straight ticket, said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that while Democrats still make up 45 percent of the registered voters in this state, for a very long time they have not voted a straight ticket,” Beller said. “We see a lot of Democratic voters who do cross party lines.”
While polls generally have shown West Virginians lining up behind the Republican Trump for president and the Democrat Justice for governor, the races down the ballot from there are likely to be decided at the local — and personal — level, Beller said.
“On legislative races,a whole different dynamic comes into play,” Beller said. “Theres a lot of personal relationships there. People might have an affinity toward a representative who doesn’t represent a person’s party.
Party registration certainly is not indictative of voting trends in local races.”
Economic changes are also affecting West Virginia voting trends, said Damien Arthur, a political science professor at Marshall University.
“There’s a lot going on there,” Arthur said. “In the past you had very strong unions, very strong New Deal Democrats, who are cohesive to some extent. As that union power decreased and as the economy shifts from something aside of energy, those voters feel left behind.
“Often the signs tell you everything you need to know about what a candidate is. It’ll be red, and it’ll say ‘coal’ and ‘jobs.'”
That dynamic is also relevant to how West Virginians’ widespread support of Donald Trump in the presidential election.
“Here’s the issue: West Virginia is really unique,” Arthur said. “They believe this system has left them behind. Clinton is about as establishment as can be, and Trump is anything but establishment. This is this idea that he’s a successful businessman who creates jobs. He’s that outsider, and people like that here for one reason or another — that he’ll be able to shake up the government that hasn’t worked for them.
“So, how much of that will play out down ballot?”
MetroNews Decision 2016 coverage begins at 7:06 Tuesday night on radio stations across the state and at wvmetronews.com. We’ll have reporters at Justice and Cole election night headquarters.