What to Watch for in the West Virginia Primary

Clinton country? Not so much.

— -- Nearly eight years ago to the day, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a 2-1 margin in West Virginia.

Fast-forward to today, and the dynamics in the state have almost entirely flipped. Bernie Sanders is expected to do well today and Clinton, once on top in coal country and now hoping to unify the party behind her, is bracing for a loss.

Here’s what to watch for today:

‘Coal County’ No Longer Clinton Country

Appalachia favored Clinton in 2008. She won West Virginia handedly late in the race, though Democrats across the country were lining up behind her opponent. But this go-around the former secretary of state has hit major roadblocks.

During a visit to the state last week, Clinton was met by many angry protesters outraged over recent comments she made about the coal mining industry. When confronted by one Republican voter about the remark -- in which she said her clean-energy plan would put coal companies out of business -- Clinton explained she "misspoke" and that her comments were taken out of context. But her efforts to make amends seem to have fallen on deaf ears among the largely white, working-class voters in the state.

This primary season, Clinton has been seen, in many ways, as the torchbearer of President Obama’s legacy and has fared well with those voters who want to see a continuation of her former opponent's policies. Perhaps then it is not so surprising that she would be struggling in a state where he, too, has struggled to get the votes of his own party members, even in 2012 when he was the incumbent president.

Sanders, meanwhile, has taken advantage of his relative popularity in the state and honed in on his anti-poverty message. Visiting some of the poorest communities in the state, he has used his firebrand tone to stir large crowds even in rural areas, as he talks of bringing federal jobs to town through major infrastructure investments and raising the minimum wage.

The Math

By May 2008, Obama had begun to pull ahead in pledged delegates nationwide, and with the wind at his back, many superdelegates were switching sides to back him. Despite Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia, many party leaders suggested at the time she consider dropping out for the sake of party unity. (Sound familiar?)

Even if Sanders won every single one of West Virginia’s 29 pledged delegates today, it would do little to cut into Clinton’s 290 pledged delegate lead. In order to pull ahead of Clinton on this front, he would need to win over 65 percent of all pledged delegates in all remaining state primaries. Which is likely why, on the day before the West Virginia primary, Sanders was already campaigning in New Jersey and California, two states with hundreds of delegates up for grabs. Sanders will most likely need to win both states by wide margins to pass Clinton in the pledged delegate race.

Proceed With Caution

Meanwhile, Clinton has her sights set far beyond West Virginia. Her campaign is, as they like to call it, walking and chewing gum at the same time: running a general election campaign parallel to their primary campaign. Between visits to upcoming voting states like California and Kentucky, Clinton is traveling to battleground states, such as Ohio and Virginia, where she has already been staffing up. (Clinton is also rarely engaging with her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, opting instead to take on Donald Trump.)

Despite such confidence, however, there is room for pause. Clinton faces the challenge of unifying Democratic Party members, many of whom have been hesitant to rally behind her. Just this week, for instance, a large group of Sanders supporters protested outside her Cinco de Mayo campaign event in East Los Angeles. So, even though she may be ready to move on to the general election, not everyone in her party is on the same page.

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