West Virginia is overwhelmingly white, with a lower education profile and lower incomes than neighboring states.
In advance of the Mountain State's Tuesday primary, in which 39 delegates are up for grabs, West Virginia Wesleyan College's Robert Rupp says the Democratic presidential hopefuls should focus their campaigns on the state's bedrock priorities: family, faith, food and the flag.
West Virginia has the highest average altitude of states east of the Mississippi, and Rupp, who teaches political science, says residents are the prototype of an official new subgroup: Appalachian-Americans.
"They're mountaineers — they're overwhelmingly white," Rupp says. "They have a lower education profile, a lower income, and they have plenty of pride and belief in family."
America's economy — the "food" in Rupp's prescription — has become a major issue nationwide, but the presidential candidates should consider that when the country as a whole is in crisis, West Virginia is often steaming along, Rupp says. That's because of what is in the mountains: "The 1970s was a very good decade," he says. "Now we're in a very good situation, because we're a coal state in an energy crisis."
Because of West Virginians' commitment to family, Rupp says, it has one of the highest commuting rates among states east of the Mississippi. "We want to stay with our families. So, we get in the car and drive an hour and a half, because in that county, there's a job for us."
But because of the current boom in coal use and prices, West Virginians have longer-range concerns, Rupp says. They would like better jobs now, but they are even more worried about their children.
As for flags and faith, Rupp says his state has more American Legions and VFW posts than it does high schools. And a "very large percentage of our youth serve in the military," he says.
Sen. Hillary Clinton was "someone initially who would not fit" in West Virginia, Rupp says, noting that she was raised in the suburbs, went to Ivy League colleges, is a millionaire — and she's a woman, which is an issue in a state that has re-elected only one woman to statewide office, Rupp says. "She constantly gives those concrete proposals about jobs and food."
Rupp points out how far Clinton has gone to re-introduce herself to West Virginians. The Clinton campaign recently released what Rupp calls "a pro-gun" fact sheet attacking Obama's stance on firearms.
"Who woulda thunk it 10 years ago that Hillary would adopt this populist, I'm-one-of-you, one-of-the-boys attitude?" Rupp asks.
"Out of all of the states, this is Clinton country. ... They not only want to win this; they want to win this by 20-25 percent."