Months before the 2018 General Election, politicos wondered how Democratic Senator Joe Manchin could win re-election in a state that had flipped to red and given Donald Trump a 42-point victory over Hillary Clinton. Early on, Manchin was tagged with the “vulnerable Democrat” label.
Yet, he won. It was not an overwhelming victory over Patrick Morrisey—50 percent to 46 percent (20,543 votes)—but given the circumstances, it was the most significant win of his long political career. (Read more here from Brad McElhinny.)
The big picture answer to his success is that Manchin has, over the years, established his own political brand. His political identity is not that of a Democrat, but rather as the “party” of Joe Manchin. West Virginian’s know him. Not everyone trusts him or even likes him, but he has built a comfort level with enough voters to carry him across the line in a tough election.
Manchin failed to get the kind of broad-based geographic support of previous elections—Morrisey carried a majority of the state’s counties (31). However, Manchin built a lead in several of the state’s largest counties. He won by 16,538 votes in Kanawha County, 7,029 votes in Monongalia County and 5,607 votes in Cabell County.
Morrisey needed to do better in the larger Republican strongholds. For example, he carried Berkeley County, but only by 3,634 votes and he lost Wood County by 538 votes.
Morrisey underperformed in southern West Virginia. That region went heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 and gave Republican 3rd District Congressional candidate Carol Miller a 12-point win over Democrat Richard Ojeda. Morrisey won Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Mercer, McDowell, Mingo, Raleigh and Wyoming Counties, 52 percent to 46 percent, but Trump won those same counties two years ago 77 percent to 23 percent.
Trump clearly helped Morrisey, but the Attorney General could not secure all the Trump voters. The exit polling showed that Manchin won about 30 percent of the voters who supported Trump in the 2016 election.
Demographically, West Virginia is one of the oldest states in the nation. Older voters are more likely to vote, but it was the younger voters who helped Manchin. Exit polling shows that 12 percent of the electorate in West Virginia were first-time voters who leaned toward Manchin. He won 60 percent of the voters who are 39 or younger.
Manchin’s vote for Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court was important in the race. About 60 percent said his support of Trump’s nominee was an important factor in their decision.
Morrisey failed to bring in needed Democratic and independent voters. Only 11 percent of voters who identify as Democrats supported Morrisey, while 19 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Manchin. Independent/no party voters favored Manchin 51 percent to 42 percent.
Going forward, Democrats in other Trump states will be tempted to look at West Virginia to try to figure out how to win. That would be a mistake. Manchin won because he’s Joe Manchin, and that’s not something that can be replicated elsewhere.