Call him a businessman, call him a reality TV star—but more and more West Virginians are hoping to call Donald Trump president. The Republican frontrunner now enjoys more support in West Virginia than any other state.
Trump has commanding lead here: from 45 percent in the northern part of the state to 36 percent in the south, according to recent figures.
Former state GOP chairman Mike Stuart, who now serves as co-chairman of Trump’s campaign here, thinks all of his experiences combined with a “special passion and spirit” are responsible for this growing popularity in the Mountain State.
Since taking on this volunteer role, Stuart said he’s been overwhelmed by other Trump supporters in the state who also believe he “fits perfectly into what we need in West Virginia with coal mines being shut down and the natural gas industry also struggling.”
Stuart said a video he’d posted online – showing Trump talking about his concerns for coal miners and vowing to fight for them – had quickly received more than 150,000 views.
“I’ve honestly never before seen anything like that in terms of absolute enthusiasm,” he said.
His differences are what the country needs, Stuart said, “I think we’ve come to a critical point because our country can’t afford to just make changes on the edges anymore. I am personally willing to try something different to get this country moving again.”
Trump’s business expertise will been an advantage because “he comes prepared and has worked big deals his whole life.”
State residents are particularly tired of the current administration’s attack on coal and other fossil fuels – which is the opposite of the support they’ve heard from Trump, who has offered to fight for miners, he said.
His own father, a Democrat and retired coal miner, is now a Trump supporter but he’s not alone among other blue-collar workers who’ve traditionally voted democratic in West Virginia but are now seeking other options, Stuart said.
“He does care about the coal miners and so it might be possible for him to be in southern West Virginia. Or Wheeling might also be a good choice because neighboring states are also important to his campaign and this would be a chance to draw in voters from them,” Stuart said.
Even Trump’s critics have to admit he speaks his mind. “I don’t always like how he says some things, and he is not always poetic, but I’m not sure we have time for just talking poetically about the challenges we have,” Stuart said.
Dr. Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, agrees Trump has captured voters in a special way – and it may be a historic change.
“What Trump has done is so incredible that I may have to rewrite most of my lectures. Before we talked about money being the mother milk of politics, but now when Jeb Bush raised $100 million it didn’t work,” said Rupp.
While television has traditionally been used to communicate candidates’ views, Trump has also redefined the media since TV ads are no longer a vital part of a successful national campaign, he said.
“Those ads may actually go the way of a candidate’s sign in someone’s front yard, because we are in a digital age and Trump understands that very well. As a result, the idea that you have to campaign face to face has also been challenged because of his digital reach,” Rupp said.
Don’t discount Trump’s media and reality show experience, because he’s quick on his feet and used to speaking from the cuff, he said.
“Long or deep answers aren’t generally needed in those types of situations, and Trump successfully uses that approach in his campaign. He has a way of not answering questions, or maybe only answering with one sentence before beginning to talk about some other more popular topic – say, veterans, for example. And except for a couple of debates, no one has really challenged him to provide more details,” Rupp said.
Experts say about one-third of voters cast their ballot based on a candidate’s personality, and that’s a plus for Trump, he said.
“So in a sense, we are more impressed with the image than the issues,” Rupp said.
Even though he’s a rich, well-known businessman and has very little in common with the common man – including state coal miners – Trump has the ability to bridge that gap.
“He is not of you, but he convinces you that he is for you. So while he is a billionaire living in New York City what he is saying to these voters is that I may not know you or lived your experience, but I will fight for you. People like the idea that someone is on their side, especially someone who is viewed being outside of the Washington establishment,” Rupp said.
John Deskin, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, agreed Trump’s general approach to campaigning – “Make America Great Again” – is playing well.
— The Journal (@TheJournalWV) January 11, 2016
And economics may play a role in his popularity among state voters, who feel economically beaten down and are looking for someone to reassure them about the future.
“West Virginia’s economy has been sour over the last three or four years. Coal has been devastated and that has caused a lot of job loss, as well as a lot of stagnation in other sectors so the economy is suffering tremendously,” Deskin said.
“Donald Trump is very aggressive in his attack on the establishment and on the status quo – a status quo which in the last couple of years has been very unfavorable for West Virginia,” he said.
“Since he has been the most aggressive in attacking the Washington establishment, it makes sense that people here would be interested in what he has to say because it is personal with them. So it stands to reason his poll numbers would be high here in West Virginia – the state that has suffered the most,” Deskin said.