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Ignore the Pundits: "Coal Country" Doesn't Decide Elections Like It Used To

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Just a few weeks ago, I was doing some reporting in the heart of coal country in eastern Kentucky, near the West Virginia border. I was with a retired coal-mine safety director, Linc Chapman, who was showing me around his corner of Martin County, which has been heavily mined for decades. “We got a bunch of hollow mountains here,” he said.

What there wasn’t much to see, though, was active mining going on. The underground coal that’s left in eastern Kentucky is harder to reach, and mountaintop mining faces widespread resistance, from government regulators and citizens alike. Chapman’s son-in-law is a miner, too, but he has to drive over to West Virginia to find work. Other miners in eastern Kentucky have headed to the mines in the western part of the state, where the industry, part of the Illinois Basin, is faring better.

I thought of Martin County these past two days when I saw all the headlines professing grave political fallout for Democratic candidates in coal country as a result of the Obama administration’s historic new rules geared to reduce carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. “Democrats in Coal County Run From E.P.A.,” read a headline on the front page of today’s New York Times. “Coal-State Democrats Blast Emission Rule,” declared the Washington Post front page. “President Barack Obama's plan to curb power plant pollution puts Democrats running for office in coal country in a tough spot: Criticize their president, or side with him and become part of what could be a major drag on their region's economy,” wrote the Associated Press.

Missing from some of this analysis and punditry, though, is crucial context. Quite simply, coal country isn’t what it used to be. Employment in the coal industry has been in decline for so long in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia that the number of jobs directly at risk from any clampdown on coal is far smaller than the sweeping rhetoric about “coal country” would have one assume.

Take Kentucky, the focus of much of the punditry, given the close race between Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Coal-mining employment in the Bluegrass State has plunged by more than half in the past three decades, from 38,000 in 1983 to under 17,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (Nationally, there are 78,000 people employed in coal mining—well less than half as many as are employed in oil and gas extraction, and not much more than the number of people employed in logging.) To put that in perspective: the auto manufacturing industry in Kentucky employs three times as many people as the coal industry does today. When is the last time you heard pundits making grand predictions about how new auto-industry regulations would affect Kentucky “Car Country”? 

appalachia coal jobs

Now, there’s no question coal’s grip on politics in Kentucky extends beyond actual employment figures—it is part of the state’s cultural identity, part of the holy trinity that also includes horses and bourbon. That explains why, as the Times notes, a Republican congressional candidate recently savaged his opponent for being anti-coal in a Kentucky district that has not a single coal-mining job in it. And in coal country, the economic impact of the rules will reach beyond the mines themselves to all the residents and businesses who have come to rely on the cheap electricity provided by coal (though it should be noted that the new rules give Kentucky and West Virginia more lenient targets for emissions reductions than other states).

Still, we should not be surprised if the political fallout from the new rules proves less than overwhelming. Just ask Mitt Romney. In 2012, he invested heavily in ads attacking Barack Obama as anti-coal as part of his effort to win the swing states of Ohio and Virginia. This came to naught—perhaps because only a sliver of people in either states are actually employed by the coal industry, about 3,000 in Ohio and 5,000 in Virginia. And it’s not just the industry itself that’s underpopulated—“coal country” as a whole makes up a vanishingly small portion of those states, as residents of southwestern Virginia and southeastern Ohio (never densely settled to begin with) have moved elsewhere for work. As Slate's Dave Weigel notes, in 2012, Mitt Romney won Dickinson County in Virginia’s coal country by 24 points. But Dickinson County voters cast fewer than 7,000 ballots. Meanwhile, Obama won by 44 points in the city of Norfolk, which has good reason to be more favorable toward regulations intended to address climate change. And Norfolk cast nearly 77,000 votes. (The anti-Obama forces may have figured out the limits of coal-based appeals: a robo-call attacking Democratic senator Mark Warner that is going up in Virginia attacking the new rules says, “Tell Mark Warner higher gas prices and new EPA regulations just don't make sense for Virginia.” The new rules have nothing to do with gas prices, but hey, why let the facts stand in the way?)

None of this is meant to minimize the economic pain that new limits on coal will inflict on Appalachian coal country. It’s just to note that the decline has been underway for a very long time, driven by a combination of automation, the rise of easier-to-access Western coal in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin, restrictions on mountaintop mining, and most of all, the new surge in cheap natural gas. “It’s not Obama’s war on coal. It’s reality’s war on coal. Natural gas turns out to be better than coal in the marketplace,” Michael Lynch, an energy consultant, told the Times.

These trends have left a part of the country that was never well-off to begin with in seriously dire straits, and we should be doing everything we can to help it adjust. But to do that will require recognition from the media and political elites that glib declarations about “coal country” don’t apply the way they used to, because that coal country is gone.

Addendum, 1:30 p.m.: Over at The Upshot, Nate Cohn makes a key related point: given how much Democratic support has declined in coal country in the past couple decades, the party has little left to lose with the new coal rules.