A Fossil Fuel for a Fossil Campaign

Romney's Fatal Bet on Coal

The New Republic's Alec MacGillis writes on the Romney campaign's reason for pushing so hard the line about Obama's "War on Coal."

However, Murray's eye-catching prayer raises another question that I did not explore fully in my piece last month: What, exactly, was Mitt Romney thinking in making such an aggressive play for coal country, and allying himself with Bob Murray as part of that? The answer may seem obvious: three of the swing states Romney dearly wanted to win are coal-producing–Ohio, Virginia and Colorado–as is Pennsylvania, the state Republicans have been trying to get back in their column for two decades.

Coal country tends to be dominated by just the sort of working-class white voters who have been cool to Obama from the get-go. And, whatever the reality of Obama's impact on the coal industry, there is a strong sense among its executives that he has indeed been engaged in a four-year "war on coal." (Never mind that as a senator in coal-producing Illinois he was for a time awfully cozy with the industry.) To the Romney campaign, this must've made for a seeming no-brainer: Want to win those three or four states? Go hard on coal.

But was this the right calculation? It seems that this may have been another instance where the Romney campaign made the mistake of elevating anecdote and instinct over hard numbers. And the press may have been in complicit in this. We talk a lot about "coal country" as if it's a major swath of the country and a trove of swing-state votes, but it really isn't. According to the National Mining Association, there are only 2,800 mining jobs in Ohio, 5,000 in Virginia, 2,200 in Colorado and 8,300 in Pennsylvania. The largest coal-producing states are solidly Republican: West Virginia (21,000 jobs) and Kentucky (17,000 jobs). And it's not just the industry that doesn't have a whole lot of swing-state numbers–it's coal country as a whole.

Simply put, coal country is very sparsely populated territory. The Murray operations in Ohio are concentrated in Belmont and Monroe counties in the Ohio River Valley in the southeastern part of the state. In 2008, slightly more than 32,000 people voted in Belmont County and fewer than 7,000 voted in Monroe (the second-lowest vote tally in the state). Romney improved on John McCain's numbers in this part of the state, but to little effect -- in Belmont, he picked up a swing of about 3,500 votes, and in Monroe, fewer than 1,200. Contrast that with the scale of the auto industry in the state: Roughly one in eight Ohio jobs are linked to auto makers and parts suppliers, and there's a plant or supplier in all but a few of the state's counties. Lucas County, which includes Toledo and one of the Jeep plants that Romney wrongly said was headed to China, netted Obama more than 61,000 votes, more than 10,000 above his 2008 margin in Lucas.

Good points. The rhetoric about coal always struck me as overwrought, especially as it's being killed much more by cheap natural gas than regulatory burden from the EPA. There was no need for the GOP to compound an already egregious mistake by tying fortunes to a dying industry, but such was the decision. And while I doubt it was a huge player for the award of "What was most bungled political decision for this cycle," it certainly didn't help the Governor's campaign.