Coal: Obama's Kryptonite
In a presidential election that appears headed for a photo finish, it may be coal that transforms itself into political black gold for Republican nominee Mitt Romney and into kryptonite for President Barack Obama. While the president's economic policies have devastated several industries, it is the coal producers who are strategically located and have the opportunity and ability to become a real force in this campaign.
The main reason behind the mineral's potential election-determining power is that most of the coal-producing voters reside in traditionally Democratic counties and precincts. Ohio and Virginia, and possibly Pennsylvania, are potentially so electorally close that either candidate losing a significant share of his own party's vote could cost him that particular state and thereby the White House itself.
Therefore, the fundamental unanswered question is whether President Obama can neutralize some of his past actions in the critical energy-producing states. This becomes especially difficult when fully comprehending that Obama's Cap & Trade legislation has already proven itself politically lethal to Democrats.
We all know that Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, places that lie in a major domestic coal-producing region, are part of the group of swing states that will determine who occupies the White House after the November 6 election. Currently, polls suggest that the challenger is in position to convert Florida -- the single most important state for Romney, because he simply cannot replace its 29 electoral votes -- and North Carolina but is slightly behind in Virginia and Ohio. It's in the latter two states, and possibly wavering PA, where coal voters have the opportunity to play their decisive role.
You will remember that the president's very first major legislative initiative attempted to make Cap & Trade the law of the land. This so-called "energy equalization" concept is economically devastating to coal-producing regions, and most of the local congressmen who supported the measure were summarily dismissed from office during the midterm election. Obama's bill passed the House of Representatives under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but Majority Leader Harry Reid couldn't muster enough support among his Senate colleagues to even hold a vote.
In the subsequent 2010 election, coal-producing states such as West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania defeated a combined thirteen congressional Democrats -- an event that led the way to Republicans recapturing the House majority. Of this baker's dozen of losing members, nine voted for Cap & Trade. West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan, a 28-year senior member, lost badly in the Democratic primary directly after supporting C&T. Virginia's Rick Boucher, another "yes" vote on the controversial legislation, who was also first elected in 1982 and served in a key position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lost to a Republican in the general election.
Freshman Rep. Glenn Nye, from southeastern Virginia's 2nd District, and two-term Rep. Charlie Wilson, who represented the main Ohio coal-producing district that borders Pennsylvania and West Virginia, also lost to Republicans in large part because of Cap & Trade fallout, even though they both opposed the bill.
Toward the end of the volatile 2010 campaign, West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, at the time running for Senate, understood the strength of the issue and, in one of his television commercials, went so far as to literally nail the Cap & Trade bill to a tree and take "dead aim" with his scoped rifle! He would go on to score a 53%-43% victory in the general election.
Clearly the coal Democrats have not yet forgotten. Case in point is the performance of the convicted felon on this year's West Virginia Democratic presidential primary ballot, Keith Russell Judd, who posted 40.6% against Obama...from his jail cell in Texas.
As has been reported in most publications and analysis stories, the core states in this election between President Obama and Mitt Romney are Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio. Based upon the 2008 electoral result, for Romney to unseat the president, he must win all four of the aforementioned and carry at least one other Obama state larger than Vermont or Delaware. This assumes that Indiana and the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska (Maine and Nebraska are the only states that split their electoral votes by allowing each of their congressional districts to cast its own Electoral College tally) return to the Republican column. There are other ways for him to win, but this collection of states and votes is Romney's easiest and most likely path to victory.
Will Mitt Romney receive the unified support of the normally Democratic coal constituency? Or can the president find some way to redeem himself with these people and rebound? The answers to these two key questions, to be revealed just weeks from now, could well define the outcome of the presidential election and put the nation on a decided new course for the next four years. The coal potential, along with synergy coming from other single and multi-issue groups, underscores that the final determining factors in this election campaign have yet to occur.
Jim Ellis is a professional election analyst who has worked in national campaign politics and grassroots issue advocacy since 1978. www.jimellisinsights.com