Lessons from the Election: The Decline of Coal’s Political Clout


Trump bet big that a political strategy attacking President Obama and Hillary Clinton for a “war on coal” would pay off. But if the current polling showing Clinton still ahead in the race turns out to be correct, we will be able to say this ploy was an outright bust. Sort of like placing a bad bet in (or on) a Trump casino.

The Trump-Pence claim of a war on coal was never grounded in economic reality since the eastern coal region has faced declining fortunes for decades due to competition from wind, natural gas and cheaper, mechanized western coal. Thus, the promise to bring back jobs by repealing environmental protections is a false one which only holds the region back from transitioning to a clean energy economy. But the decision of politicians (notably in the Republican party) to tie themselves to the war on coal is also a political mistake, as the electoral clout of eastern coal has been steadily declining in importance.

The eastern coal producing region has figured prominently in the nation’s political and economic transformation for years. Seven states in particular — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia — have at times held the balance in the electoral college in presidential elections. For example, if the Democrats had carried Ohio (or Virginia and West Virginia) in either 2000 or 2004, they would have won the White House in those campaigns. If Ford in 1976 had carried all of the eastern coal states that Nixon had the previous election, he too would have won.

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