West Virginia and the 2000 election

by Milan on May 18, 2010

in Coal mining, International relations

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in America. Only Arkansas and Mississippi are poorer. It is also a swing state, in terms of federal politics. In the past 37 presidential contests, the state has ended up supporting the Democratic candidate 20 times. The state has had 19 Democratic governors, 15 Republicans, and one independent. Since 1933, 12 out of 16 governors have been Democrats.

West Virginia is a major producer of coal, second only to Wyoming, and those companies felt profoundly threatened by the possibility that Al Gore might have been elected president in 2000. He had been raising awareness of climate change for decades, and helped to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. In response, coal companies in West Virginia helped to organize and support the campaign of George W. Bush in that state.

Ultimately, West Virginia voted by a margin of 6.33% to give its five electoral college votes to Bush. Bush won the close-fought election with 271 electoral college votes, compared to 266 for Gore, after the 27 votes for Florida were assigned to Bush. That is to say, if Gore had won in West Virginia, it is quite plausible that the history of climate policy both in the United States and globally would have been very different.

If serious American leadership on the issue had begun back in 2000, it seems very plausible that the modest targets in the Kyoto Protocol would have been built upon in subsequent agreements by now. It also seems highly likely that the Iraq War would never have been launched, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and that huge expenditure of American wealth and energy would never have taken place. Even in the face of strong opposition in Congress, it seems likely that a Gore administration would have taken significant steps in dealing with climate change: tightening rules on coal mining and toxic emissions from coal plants, reducing coal’s economic advantage, and maybe even managing to put a price on carbon emissions.

Of course, the same can be said of all the states where the results were close and where more than five electoral college votes were at stake. That being said, the situation does seem illustrative of how relatively small prompts can telescope out to have wide-ranging effects.

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