Sanders Beats Clinton in W.Va., Pushes Ahead

Sanders Beats Clinton in W.Va., Pushes Ahead
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West Virginia Democrats, motivated by coal country’s economic woes and their anti-free-trade angst, handed Bernie Sanders another primary victory Tuesday, although Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead remains on pace to make her the party’s nominee within weeks.

“We just got word that we won our 19th state,” Sanders told supporters in an email moments after NBC News projected he would win early in the evening. With 57 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders claimed 51 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 37 percent. “There is nothing I would like more than to take on and defeat Donald Trump, someone who must never become president of this country,” he said.

Sanders’ triumph over the former secretary of state, following his win in Indiana May 3, bolstered the Vermont senator’s determination to fight on in Kentucky and Oregon May 17, and in California June 7, where the Democratic socialist believes his coalition of progressives and independents can pressure a Democratic establishment to either view him as the candidate who can trounce a GOP nominee, or adopt his ideas.

Sanders defeated Clinton among women, independents, and West Virginians anxious about their economic wellbeing, according to exit polling.

Clinton’s loss, while bruising, did not alter her plan to gingerly step around Sanders and focus a barrage of attacks on Trump. Because of proportional delegate sharing, West Virginia’s results, with 29 delegates at stake, benefited the former first lady as well as Sanders. After campaigning in Kentucky Tuesday, where her campaign will invest $175,000 in television ads, Clinton flew home to New York.

Sanders, who remains mathematically unable to catch Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates, plans to wait until the end of the primary season before trying to persuade super delegates that he’s the best candidate to defeat Trump, and should be the nominee.

“After they’ve spoken, we will make the case,” Tad Devine, senior strategist with the Sanders campaign, told CNN.

Worries about jobs and the economy dominated Democrats’ concerns in West Virginia, where unemployment is 6.5 percent and where a third of Democratic voters Tuesday said someone in their household works in the embattled coal industry, according to exit polling.

West Virginia is a conservative and predominantly white state, where Trump is expected to do well in November, if he becomes the Republican nominee. Economic worries are aggravated by the lowest educational attainment in the country, according to U.S. Census data. Only 18.9 percent of those 25 and older in West Virginia had earned at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013.

Clinton alienated many in the state this spring when she predicted the U.S. shift to clean energy would result in job losses in coal states.

“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Clinton said during a March town hall conversation. She later apologized for her remark but conceded she could not reel it back.

The former New York senator in 2008 crushed Barack Obama by 41 points in the West Virginia primary. Obama went on to win the Democratic nomination, but GOP nominee Sen. John McCain captured the state on Election Day.

Trump has established his crossover political appeal among working class, Midwestern and Rust Belt Republicans and independents. Clinton’s struggles against Sanders in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana have prompted deep dives by her campaign into the data and exit polling to figure out how she can best make a persuasive case against Trump. 

Sanders performs better than Clinton does in hypothetical general election matchups against Trump and other Republican candidates, and the senator eagerly champions those poll results on the stump as evidence of his electability.

“Virtually every poll has us way, way ahead of Donald Trump,” Sanders said during a California rally Tuesday. “If you want the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump, that’s us.”

Speaking to supporters in Oregon after results came in Tuesday evening, Sanders reiterated his plan to stay in the race and emphasized his lead in polls.  "Bernie Sanders defeats Donald Trump by big numbers,” he said. 

Although Clinton has accumulated more popular votes during the Democratic primaries and caucuses, and has captured more pledged delegates and super delegates than Sanders, his heft against a Republican nominee as measured by polls has prevailed month after month. 

Sanders has a 13-point lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls that tested a general election competition. Clinton’s lead over Trump, by comparison, was 6.4 percentage points.

Explanations abound. Some analysts believe self-described independent voters give Sanders the edge. Some argue the senator’s progressive populist agenda sways voters when it comes to a potential general election face-off against Trump. Others believe Clinton’s negative ratings among some voters undercut assessments about whether she can defeat Trump in November.

“Hillary is very weak on `cares about people like you and me’ in poll after poll,” Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told RealClearPolitics. Whether it’s Clinton’s reputation as the establishment Democrat, her personal wealth and support from contributors occupying the top tiers of corporate America, or self-inflicted wounds, such as her decision to rely on a private email server while serving as secretary of state, Clinton can’t seem to shake negative poll ratings.

Voters may view Sanders as the “none of the above” candidate in hypothetical matchups against Trump, even if they expect Clinton to be the eventual Democratic nominee, analysts suggest. His ratings as “honest and trustworthy,” authentic, and in touch with kitchen-table issues of interest to many Americans outpace the Democratic front-runner.

“He happened on the scene when many people were tired of the establishment, still uncertain about the future of the economy … and simply wanted something different,” Bowman added.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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