When, in December 2021, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin announced on President Biden’s signature legislative proposal, the Build Back Better Act, the reaction boiled down to: “” After all, Manchin, despite being a Democrat, is from deep-red West Virginia, and politicians from deep-red states simply cannot vote in favor of major progressive policies championed by the leader of the Democratic Party. That’s just politics, dummy. That Biden and his fellow Democrats even tried was treated in some circles as painfully naïve: Unless Democrats learn that basic lesson and bring centrists into the fold, they’ll never achieve a vibrant, sustainable majority. Or so sayeth the conventional wisdom.
So when Manchin announced last week that he is to become an independent, his rationale was hardly difficult to predict. “The brand has become so bad,” he said, drawing on the oft-repeated talking point that the Democrats have lept too far left. In other words—and in contravention of all logic, given the results of the 2022 midterms—Manchin simply cannot in good conscience remain with a party that, in substance and style, provides no room for leaders seeking to appeal to a moderate, bipartisan electorate.
Don’t be fooled. Manchin’s charade is hardly one of principle. It’s one of total desperation.
There are no secrets about Manchin’s political situation at home. After being reelected in 2018 by just 3 percent, in a year in which Democrats vastly outperformed expectations nationally, Manchin has an enormous hill to climb with his reelection looming in 2024. But the West Virginia senator doesn’t seem to have much interest in taking responsibility for the electoral crisis in which he has enmeshed himself. Instead, he’d like us to believe the political forces around him have simply left him no choice: Both sides have drawn too far to the extremes, leaving no political home for the critical mass of centrist West Virginians who sent him to Washington. Hence the need to chart a new path on his own.
The framing echoes a convenient perspective that is adored by the media and political establishment: Elections are not won with base voters, but through a small slice of persuadable, moderate swing voters, perpetually lurking just outside of frame. Democrats, in turn, need to have some Joe Manchins—those politicians who embody the voters who are key to electoral success—lying around to be taken seriously. The failure to keep these soi-disant moderate saviors on hand reveals a fundamental structural deficiency for the party writ large.
But if it’s true that Manchin is such a political genius—uniquely capable of surviving as a Democrat in a deep red state—you would expect that his victory is owed to a broad cross section of voters from a variety of political camps. Alas, that’s the complete opposite of what happened in 2018. , Manchin garnered the votes of 64 percent of those who identify as moderates, and just 23 percent of conservatives. Those numbers are roughly in line with what New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that same year: 70 and 18 percent, respectively. The reality is Manchin barely made it over the finish line in roughly the same way Democrats all around the country win their seats: by running up the numbers with voters on the political left—Manchin won 80 percent of self-identified liberals in 2018.
Indeed, as The New Republic’s Alex Pareene in 2021, Manchin is actually far more reliant on Democratic voters than many of his blue state counterparts. While someone like Gillibrand can afford to lose large swaths of Democrats in a state where they are in ample supply, Manchin needs to pull virtually every registered Democrat in his state to win. Against all logic, Manchin approached Biden’s first term as if the rules that governed his electoral hopes were precisely opposite to reality. Instead of rewarding his most loyal voters—dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrats—by delivering for them in Washington, Manchin has spent his latest term going out of his way to alienate his base and position himself in a political no man’s land: personally steamrolling key Democratic priorities while siding with his party on most routine issues and appointments.
In short, Manchin made a bet. He believed he could rely on the support of Democrats and spent nearly all his time trying to appeal to a tiny, if not nonexistent, group of voters who are up for grabs and have no real allegiance to either of the two dominant political parties. It hasn’t worked out the way Manchin anticipated, and this is where he now finds himself—orchestrating a last-ditch, hopeless effort to create a new political reality from thin air.
It is possible Manchin never had a shot at reelection, had fortune and circumstance not permitted him to avail himself of 2018’s political trends, we’d already have a Republican holding that West Virginia senate seat. But the broader lesson is crucial for those in the media and elected leadership who constantly insist that disregarding the Democratic base in service of pursuing the allegedly vast rewards that come from focusing solely on the views of the so-called centrist, swing voters is the only viable path to victory in American politics. Those who subscribe to this view should explain why the two most notable Democrats who aggressively pursued this approach—Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—are currently fighting for their political lives, while other red-state Democratic senators such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana have consistently survived—and remain loyal to the party’s big priorities even when their electoral hopes face massive headwinds.
Mostly, we have to understand something simple about Manchin: We are not watching a political genius at work. He’s not on the verge of revealing a masterful plan to pull off another miracle in West Virginia. This is a desperate politician squirming for his political life after making a series of catastrophic political decisions. Manchin has hardly proven that the Democratic Party is mortally wounded due to its failure to leave room for the center left. All he’s done is reinforce a very basic rule in politics: Doing the opposite of what your voters want is an idiotic election strategy.