In a year full of surprises to the conventional political wisdom, the greatest story yet may be unfolding in West Virginia, where Senator Obama's campaign is rocketing to competitiveness in a nearly all-white state that went comfortably for George W. Bush in the last two elections. Despite consistent polling showing Senator McCain with a comfortable lead among registered voters, a recent ARG telephone poll of 600 such voters showed Obama with a shocking 8 point lead. Although this might be easily dismissed as an outlier, internal McCain polls (that remain closely held within the campaign) show McCain with a narrow 3-5 point lead - down from a 15 point cushion three weeks ago. On top of that, McCain's numbers have fallen below 50% in the Mountain State for the first time since his campaign began to poll there. RealClearPolitics.com has moved West Virginia from "Strong McCain" to "Toss Up".
If accurate, this could be the biggest shocker on an electoral map that has held reasonably close to expectation -- one that has featured fairly predictable battleground states, with a few new ones sprinkled in due to demographic shifts and a plummeting economy.
But West Virginia was never supposed to be in reach for Obama -- even with the enthusiastic support of its living political legend, Robert C. Byrd. Obama got absolutely spanked by Hillary Clinton long after their primary had been all but decided and has had trouble winning the support of so-called blue-collar, white rural voters all across Appalachia. Despite West Virginia's historic swing state role, the Obama campaign has invested in only four staff and put no money into paid media, figuring the state too great a challenge and the reward too slim (five Electoral College votes) to merit the effort.
However, an interesting and totally unexpected phenomenon is taking place on the ground in West Virginia. Perhaps in retaliation against an omnipresent and loosely coordinated disinformation campaign featuring vital attacks on Obama's religion, his "associations" with Wright, Ayers and Rezko, and the repeated charges that Obama will personally disarm the gun-loving Mountaineers, State Democratic activists and labor leaders have fought back with an energy unforeseeable as recently as a month ago. Although many in the West Virginia party leadership were heavily invested in Hillary Clinton's campaign, they have swung surprisingly and swiftly into action for Obama.
Obama campaign officials have privately expressed surprise and delight at noting that the labor unions in particular, perhaps in repugnance toward Republican economic policies, have taken the fight to McCain with twice the vigor they showed four years ago for John Kerry. Recently, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts expressed deep concern over the NRA spreading disinformation among union members about Obama's position on the Second Amendment. UMWA also took to the airwaves to denounce the NRA's effort and draw attention to their support for Obama along with their repudiation of the NRA's tactics.
And it looks as though the groundswell may be catching the attention of the candidates as well. On Thursday morning, Obama had a ten minute radio interview with WDGG, Huntington, WV, and Portsmouth, OH's, #1 morning show. Today, Senator Clinton held a rally in Charleston, WV, and sources indicate that larger campaign events may be in the works. CNN even reported today that Governor Palin was going to take a bus tour across the state to try to lock it down. The report proved false (Palin is landing in Huntington on Sunday to go to an Ohio event and spending the night in WV), but the fact that CNN took the possibility seriously speaks volumes -- West Virginia is officially, and surprisingly, in play.