West Virginia: How the bluest state became the reddest

The American political landscape has changed a lot over the past 25 years but there is no more dramatic shift than the one that has pushed this state from deep blue to ruby red.

In the 1992 presidential election, Democrat Bill Clinton won West Virginia by a solid 13 percentage points. In November, Republican President-elect Donald Trump captured the state in a walk — winning it by more than 40 percentage points.

The forces behind that turnaround are complex. The decline of the coal industry and the changing demographics of the political parties explain part of it. But underneath that are the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains that make West Virginia what it is: picturesque, resource-rich and remote.

Coal has dominated much of the state's story, and the industry's declines are very real. Coal production in West Virginia has declined by 30 percent since 2010 and, in that time, coal mine employment in West Virginia has fallen by more than 27 percent. Some places have been hit especially hard.

In Boone County, a short drive from Charleston, the mining cuts have shattered the economy — more than 4,000 jobs lost in the last five years, said Kris Mitchell, director of the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation. And that's in a county with only 24,000 people.

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Coal production in the county has dropped from 22,400 tons in 2010 to 8,400 in 2015.

"Whether we like it or not, this place is forever changed," Mitchell said.

And for a lot of people, the sources of those changes are clear: Democrats and environmental regulations.

President Barack Obama's plans to cut power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent impacted coal directly. Hillary Clinton's electoral drubbing here was driven in part by her promise to put "a lot of coal miners" out of work in pursuit of clean energy. The words were pulled out of context, but they fit into a narrative people here knew well.

"When Obama first got into office he said he was going to bankrupt the coal industry and he did. And he done it by regulation," said Steve Kennedy, who works at the Hobet Mine in Boone County. The site is being reclaimed and, people hope, redeveloped. "I have an 18-year-old son that graduated high school and he's working part time at UPS now but if that doesn't pan out, then he'll have to leave here to find work because there's nothing here."

Coal's struggles are not just about regulations, as officials and industry experts acknowledge. The booming natural gas market and automation have also played major, arguably larger, roles. Voters, however, see the Democrats as big drivers of the state's challenges.

Since 2010, West Virginia is the only state in the union that has lost population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its November unemployment rate, 6 percent, ranked 47th out of the 50 states.

In a larger sense, though, West Virginia's political shift is about more than economics. It's about changes in the parties, the way the state's population views itself and the way it views Washington. So it's about culture as much as economics.

Ask people in and around Charleston why the state has moved away from the Democratic Party and one of the most common responses you get is that the party has become too "liberal."

"The Democratic Party is in full retreat here now," said Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist in Charleston who's been in the state since 1992. Government, he said, is viewed as a tool of elites and a "malevolent force out to do us harm." And that's gotten worse under Obama, he added.

Trump was able to run up his massive margins, Plante said, because the president-elect knew how to talk to people in state who feel left out of the national conversation. "Trump was telling a story," he said. "Trump was saying the elites are all looking down their noses at you. 'I'm going to stick it to the people that stick it to you.' ... West Virginia is the butt of a lot of jokes and we feel that acutely here."

Plante's point is better understood when you spend some time in the state and look at the demographic transformation of the Democratic Party.

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A Caterpillar Inc. front loader scoops coal from a mound at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coaling towers stand at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A truck waits to be loaded with coal at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal sits in a pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Signage stands outside an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PRINTER, KY - JUNE 3: CSX Transportation coal trains sit in a rail yard on June 3, 2014 in Printer, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
CATTLETSBURG, KY - JUNE 3: Caterpillar front-loading machinery operates on mounds of coal at Arch Coal Terminals June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
SHELBIANA, KY - JUNE 3: A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound at the CCI Energy Slones Branch Terminal June 3, 2014 in Shelbiana, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
CATTLETSBURG, KY - JUNE 3: A tractor trailer drives by a mound of coal after delivering a truckload of coal to Arch Coal Terminals June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
PRINTER, KY - JUNE 3: A road leads past a coal train sitting alongside the Blackhawk Mining, LLC Spurlock Prep Plant on June 3, 2014 in Printer, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
Coal is dropped from a conveyer belt into a pile at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency outside Price, Utah Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to call cars on trains for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer:George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images News
Coal is transported by rail after being loaded at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Caterpillar earth mover moves piles of coal at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Caterpillar earth mover moves piles of coal at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Loaded Norfolk Southern coal trains sit before being unloaded at Lambert's Point Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Kentucky Mine Supply Company building stands in Harlan, Kentucky, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A CSX Corp. coal hopper car sits beside a Harlan County coal tipple in Totz, Kentucky, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Deckhands aboard the Consol Energy Champion Coal tow boat walk along the center of the barges on the Monongahela River, during transport outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal sits inside a barge during transport down the Monongahela River by the Consol Energy Champion Coal tow boat outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S, on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A coal miner shines his head lamp on coal transported on a conveyor belt after being sheared off the wall during longwall mining operations at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal miners walk through a tunnel at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A coal miner stands in a crevice to avoid a transport car at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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West Virginia is one of the nation's most rural states, with 77 people per square mile. Neighboring Virginia has more than 200 per square mile. There are very few drives in West Virginia that follow straight lines. Roads wind around mountains and valleys, connecting small dots on a map to one another. Its population is more than 92 percent white.

Increasingly, the Democrats have become the party of diverse, urban America. Its base is the nation's big cities.

When all the 2016 votes are in, Hillary Clinton is likely to win the national presidential popular tally by almost 3 million votes. That's despite the fact that she's going to win the vote in only about 500 of the nation's 3,100 counties. That means she won a lot of densely populated counties — places where life is very different than it is here and where the struggles of the coal industry have little personal impact.

And one of the Democrats' growing strengths, college graduates, are not a big part of West Virginia's population. Only 19 percent of the adult population has a bachelor's degree compared to nearly 30 percent nationally. A common story around Charleston, even among those who say they love West Virginia, centers on college-educated children moving elsewhere to find a job.

Is there a future for the Democratic Party in West Virginia? If there is, it may come through using government as a tool. Even as voters say they distrust Washington, people still express a strong desire for government spending — especially Trump supporters — for the roads and other infrastructure that can aid a place where private sector jobs are fleeing.

RELATED: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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And whether residents like it or not, government makes up a big part of this state's economic fortunes. A full 19 percent of those employed in the state work for some form of government — the public sector. That's higher than the 14 percent who work for the public sector nationally.

There's a history of government money flowing into West Virginia and a long list of buildings and structures named for the senator who once directed money to the state, Robert Byrd: from the Robert C. Byrd courthouses in Beckley and Charleston to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank.

And even after all the cuts in government, West Virginia still ranked ninth in federal spending per capita in 2014 at $11,973 per person. The federal funds spigot still flows more freely here than other places.

But the split between West Virginia and the Democratic Party runs deeper than all those elements. The economic divide is a demographic and cultural chasm. And sitting in Charleston, it looks all but impossible to close right now.

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