CHARLESTON —West Virginians are split on whether the state is moving in the right direction.
Forty-two percent say West Virginia is generally headed in the right direction. And almost an equal number, 43 percent, say the state is on the wrong track. Fifteen percent aren’t sure.
That’s according to the most recent results from the MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll.
“The state has a history of boom and bust cycles and the hope is to even that out,” said professional pollster Rex Repass, author of the West Virginia Poll. “I think there’s a wait-and-see attitude.”
The West Virginia Poll surveyed 404 people likely, registered voters from all 55 counties. The survey was conducted between Aug.16-26.
Gov. Jim Justice has been encouraging West Virginia residents to think more positively, pointing to some upward economic trends and scolding the media, who he believes are too inclined to be critical.
Others in the Republican majority in the Legislature also have been putting forth an optimistic economic message. Senate President Mitch Carmichael has been referring to West Virginia as the “comeback kid.”
The new House Speaker, Roger Hanshaw, talked about West Virginia’s perception of its own economic stagnation during a press conference earlier this week.
Hanshaw said that in addition to taking practical steps toward economic diversification, West Virginia leaders also need to serve as cheerleaders in support of economic growth.
“If you think about where we are as a state, a lot of the perceived stagnation that we have is as much mental as it is a reality. People want to be associated with growth. They want to be associated with excitement, they want to be associated with things that are growing and doing well,” Hanshaw said.
“So part of our responsibility as leaders is being cheerleaders for ourselves, being cheerleaders for our own state. We all live here by choice. Everyone in this room lives in West Virginia because we choose to live here.”
Repass agreed that West Virginia has been through such challenging economic times, many state residents aren’t ready to judge a relatively short period of economic improvement.
“It’s interesting that there has been some positive economic news with respect to job creation, some mines coming back to work and some of the tourism data that has been reported,” he said. “However, there is cautious optimism regarding the state’s future.”
Another split on perception of the United States
It’s a similar story when West Virginians assess the country.
Forty-eight percent say the United States is generally headed in the right direction. But 44 percent say the United States is off on the wrong track. Only 8 percent aren’t sure.
“We do see here that a plurality of West Virginians, not quite a majority, believe the U.S. is heading in the right direction,” Repass said. “But you have almost an equal number saying the country is on the wrong track.”
Some of that split, Repass suggested, may be attributed to people’s perceptions of the leadership of President Trump.
Trump’s approval in West Virginia is at 60 percent, highest in the country. But his personality can be divisive.
“This is West Virginia’s likely voter speaking and you have to keep that in mind,” Repass said. “You do have the strong Trump support in the state. The positives are all related to Trump’s core support. But there are skeptics.”
Repass added, “If you go into the data and look at registration and political orientation you’ll see the variation in these numbers. The more conservative you are, the more supportive of Donald Trump you are, the more you’ll see that blue bar, the country headed in the right direction.
“The same is true on the other side with the more liberal respondents in our survey.”
Who will vote?
This year presents an active off-year election. But will people get out and vote?
The West Virginia Poll consists of people with a regular voting history and who consider themselves likely voters.
It’s a bit of a wakeup call, then, to see that only about 4 in 10 say they are are “very interested” in the upcoming election.
The poll asked respondents to assess their interest in the election with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest.
“The top two bars are the ones who are really enthusiastic. Any election it’s about getting out your vote,” Repass said. “To me, the interpretation is you have about 4 in 10 who say they’re really enthusiastic.”
The combination of the top two options — those who said 9 or 10 — together added up to 50 percent of the respondents.
So the other half were less than completely enthusiastic.
“Those 9s and 10s are so important to look at,” Repass said.
“Likely voters means past participation and claimed commitment to voting in this election. When you put the enthusiasm or interest scale on the study and you see there is not as high an interest as you would see in the general election, it just helps us interpret a little further, what could happen in an off year election.”
What’s on the line
There will be a lot on the ballot for West Virginia voters.
A competitive U.S. Senate race pits incumbent Joe Manchin, a Democrat, against two-term Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican.
Unexpectedly, there are two state Supreme Court seats on the ballot, following the resignations of incumbents Menis Ketchum and Robin Davis amidst controversy and impeachment hearings.
Twenty total candidates are vying for those two seats.
And there are a couple of amendments to the state Constitution on the ballot.
One gives the Legislature greater oversight of the state Supreme Court’s budget. Another changes the state Constitution to state “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
And there are additional state and local offices for voters to decide.
What kind of Congress voters want
On a generic ballot for Congress, 42 percent of West Virginia Poll respondents said they would prefer a Republican candidate. Thirty-two percent would prefer a Democrat. Twenty percent aren’t sure.
But West Virginia voters don’t face a generic ballot once they enter the voting booth. There, they’ll be faced with actual candidates and their corresponding personalities and positions.
“Each district will really be unique in how voters respond,” Repass said.
Besides the Manchin and Morrisey matchup for Senate, West Virginians have choices for all three congressional seats.
The highest profile race has been for the 3rd Congressional District, which covers the southern portion of the state. Incumbent Congressman Evan Jenkins opted against running to retain it and is currently in the mix for one of the state Supreme Court seats.
State Senator Richard Ojeda, a Democrat from Logan, is matched against Delegate Carol Miller, a Republican from Huntington. Politico, this week, called the race a “toss up.”
In the 1st Congressional District, incumbent David McKinley, a Republican from Wheeling, faces Kendra Fershee, a Democrat from Morgantown. In the 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Alex Mooney, a Republican from Charles Town, faces Talley Sergent, a Democrat from Charleston.
So, when presented with a generic ballot, West Virginia voters say Republican. But it remains to be seen how they’ll vote on Election Day.
The West Virginia voter lean is not only different from the state’s own history, it’s also different from much of the rest of the country.
Nationally, 49 percent say they prefer a Democratic candidate on a generic ballot. Forty percent say they would prefer a Republican.
“The most interesting comparison is to look at West Virginia relative to the rest of the nation,” Repass said.
“A lot of the political analysts are saying the House is going to go Democratic. If you compare West Virginia to national polls, you see that West Virginia is strong Republican country. The preference is for congressional delegation in West Virginia to really remain Republican.”
Disapproval of Congress
Most of those who responded to the West Virginia Poll disapprove of Congress currently.
Disapproval is the case for 56 percent of respondents. Another 25 percent aren’t sure. And only 19 percent say they approve.
“You think about why Donald Trump was elected. It was a surprise to most,” Repass said. “There is a frustration with Washington not being able to get bills passed and problems solved. The Trump election was an attempt to disrupt the status quo.
“There is still frustration with getting legislation passed in the House and in the Senate. So there’s still frustration, and I think this data reflects that.”
Disapproval of the Legislature
The state Legislature gets slightly higher marks, but people still generally don’t like it.
Only 41 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the Legislature. Another 32 percent said they aren’t sure. And 27 percent said they approve.
All of the House of Delegates and half the state Senate is up for election this year.
The Legislature has been through several high-profile controversies in recent years.
In both 2016 and 2017, the Legislature had to go into lengthy special sessions to finish a state budget. This past legislative session was marked by a statewide teachers strike that filled the halls of the Capitol.
And this summer has been marked by the impeachment of all the remaining members of the state Supreme Court by the House of Delegates and upcoming trials in the Senate to decide whether to remove the remaining justices from office.
“The last year or two has created frustration, whether it’s the teachers issues or balancing the budget, having multiple special sessions. And so I think there’s frustration,” Repass said.
“However, it’s clear that West Virginia still leans Republican for the state Legislature. That doesn’t means some seats won’t change. However, there is a strong moderate to conservative leaning in West Virginia even though registration is still dominated by the Democratic Party.”