Canary in the Coal Mine: The Democratic Party and Split-Ticket Voting in West Virginia Open Access

Klein, Matthew (Spring 2021)

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It is widely accepted that partisan polarization has increased significantly across the United States in the last several decades. Such a change has affected the ability of minority parties to win elections in seats not carried by the presidential candidate of the same party, regardless of office or level of government. West Virginia in recent years has presented an unusual exception. Despite voting for Donald Trump twice by some of the largest margins in the country, Democrats have demonstrated a unique ability to continue to win state legislative districts in the state. This paper is a case study of one of the last states in the country where polarization has not fully taken its toll at the state level. I examine three hypotheses that seek to explain its atypical behavior. First, I compare West Virginia to other ancestrally Democratic states across the South to demonstrate its unique racial history. Second, I explore the extent to which ideology and party registration has an effect on persistent Democratic strength. Third, I assess whether the 2020 elections marked the end of split-ticket voting in the state. Through a variety of analytical designs, I conclude that race and ideology are major reasons that the West Virginia Democratic Party remains consistently able to outperform the national Democratic Party in the state. In addition, I utilize interviews with elected officials and an exclusive set of data from the 2020 election to conclude that, though split-ticket voting is decreasing in West Virginia, it remains surprisingly robust.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Historical Background 5

Theoretical Framework 8

Hypotheses & Methods 15

Testing the Race Hypothesis 19

Testing the Ideology Hypothesis 36

The 2020 Bloodbath and Beyond 54

Conclusion 65

Appendix 68

References 75

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