Why did Sanders lose in Kentuckiana?

Most success in life is fate. It’s a person’s ability to have inherent talent, luck, skills, or some combination of all three. A lot of people have one. A lot of people have none.

I do not believe most people can inherently improve any of those three components. I don’t believe most people can change in dramatic ways. Maybe they change their political party, or join or leave a religion, or lose or gain weight, but they don’t change character. It’s partly genetic and deeply cultural.

“Oh Justin, you’re so pessimistic.” Really? Name one person you went to high school with that’s considerably different today than they were then and they’ve been consistent ever since. I think I’m just being realistic and pragmatic. Once a jerk always a jerk, once a smart guy always a smart guy.

Which is why this election fascinates me so much. Clinton has been playing her primary game for the general election all along. She’ll do fine. I don’t think she’s very interesting to talk about here.

But Sanders and Trump are far more interesting in what they say about voters. Sanders won almost every county in Indiana last night, except for a few. He lost where there are high black populations (Lake and Marion Counties) and he lost all the counties along the Ohio Valley.

I have some ideas why he lost in Kentuckiana. Aside from being more conservative in general, these are counties that exist outside the general media market of the rest of the state. Kentucky and Ohio-based stations may not have played as many ads as Indianapolis-based stations.

It was also likely the message. Perhaps this is where I get my generally dismal view of life from since I hail from the Ohio Valley: no one’s going to do anything for me, life is very hard, and then it’s over.

Sanders campaigns on this idea that lots of things will change and improve. Healthcare, food insecurity, wages, and taxation do not fly far here. Why should I pay for health insurance when there’s no place to get good healthcare anyway? Why worry about my diet when there’s no place to get fresh food anyway? Why worry about increasing wages when there aren’t any large employers anyway, and the employers we do have we know they can’t afford to pay us more? Why pay higher taxes for anything when we know it’s never going to benefit us, ever?

“That’s a little hyperbolic”, you say. But you must not spend much time down there. They have less than nothing going for them on a grand scale. They live their lives with the lot they have, doing the best with little, and will always have little. They know this. My grandmother has epitomized that for my entire life: “I don’t have much, but that’s just how it is,” she says.

They don’t want Sanders or the Government to give them anything, because they know even if its promised to them, they’re never going to see it. Government programs might work in cities, but it’s not going to even occur here.

On the flip side, you have Trump supporters. They’re in the same economic and demographic cluster. But they know, too, that the Republican-fueled promises don’t matter either. Transportation and highway funding? Why bother, there’s no highway around us anyway, and the ones that do exist don’t go anywhere. Where’s a person in Crawford County supposed to go? St. Louis is the closest city of significance to the west and might as well be on the moon. Louisville, a relatively small city in comparison is half an hour east, and Cincinnati a couple hours beyond that.

Increase defense? Why bother, no one’s going to invade Clarksville.

Claims to build a wall do hold some weight because people very noticeably see immigrants competing for the same low-skill jobs they want and try to hold. In a sense it’s like saying, “We had 10 jobs and 9 people and now we have 8 jobs and 18 people.”

And this tugs at the root of something a little inconsistent among these voters. They don’t want help in the form of government programs. They don’t want promises, because they know that’s not happening. They don’t want to pay for anything either because there’s no money and any money they do pay goes somewhere else (yes, yes, I’m aware Indiana receives more federal money than it sends in, but geographically we know that most of that money is going to Indianapolis and other demographic centers).

But these voters do want something to change. There’s just one problem: the thing that needs to change is them. And once you make that claim, it quickly becomes “the government’s fault”. My dad used to do this all the time, even blaming Salem’s mayor for “not bringing any factories in.”

A person can’t change their luck. They just kinda have to be around for long enough for something to maybe break in their favor. They can’t change their inherent talent, either. A person who couldn’t sing yesterday probably won’t today or tomorrow. A 50-year-old man who wasn’t strong yesterday isn’t going to be today and doesn’t have the time to get physically strong for that labor job while he also needs to pay the light bill. A person can’t change their skill dramatically, either. There’s few if any educational opportunities to be had, and the ones that exist aren’t helpful.

My dad was unemployed for five years after his factory closed. The Democratic help was job training, unemployment payments, and more financial assistance. He qualified for none except unemployment insurance and didn’t want them anyway. The job training options were for things like a nurse technician or a caregiver. A man who works 35 years loading trucks does not suddenly become a nurse anything.

The Republican argument was to get back up, work harder, study something, be better and more valuable. He didn’t or couldn’t do any of that. He had no cognitive ability, inherent talents, or skills to improve or acquire. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. An illiterate person does not suddenly become literate with any speed or efficiency to be of benefit to them in mid-to-late life with bills to pay.

Guys like my dad had a geographic monopoly on labor, that went away, and now they’ve lost their only edge. And people in this group aren’t going to pick up books or start a Pinterest page (there’s no library or internet service of much use anyway, nor would he know how to use them if they were there).

The problem with these people isn’t the environment. It’s the people. There is almost nothing we as a country can do for people in this situation. Health insurance is probably the biggest, but it won’t change much in the way of life advancement.

This area will fall in line with Trump for the general election.

Not only do these people not want or try to improve themselves, they don’t have the means to even if they wanted to. This is something of a government failure, but it’s also a cultural failure. And it’s not going away until another 1-2 generations move along. If it seems like rural places are stuck in time, it’s because they are and always have been, almost by no choice of their own. We can’t all be winners.

Want to know when stuff like this is published?
Sign up for my email list.

Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

4 thoughts on “Why did Sanders lose in Kentuckiana?”

  1. It sounds like it would never and could never work, especially in the minds of those in the situation, but these people need to be in a city.

    The rural way of life is dying or at least mostly dead. Once the one thing you rely on goes away, there is nothing else.

    So how do you transplant these people to a city? I don’t know, but the floundering is going to continue as long as they remain isolated.

    FYI, I grew up in a rural Iowa town of about 1,500 and I’m so glad I escaped.

  2. ^ I assume many people would just as soon shove a rusty spoon in their eye than move to a city. I’ve written about this phenomenon too, where as cities become more valuable and powerful, the people who get “left behind” aren’t left behind, they stay behind. This in turns creates a vicious cycle of inescapable doom for their families and kids.

    What we’re talking about here is forced relocation. And, uh, that’s not cool.

  3. Yep, and that gets back to the “they need to change” part. I just sucks that the alternative is for them to thin their own herd with drugs, alcohol, bad food, poor healthcare, lung cancer, prison, or whatever horrible poverty driven method you can think of.

    Of course, this is all new stuff for white people, but every urban minority who was displaced or trapped by “urban renewal” in the 50s-70s is nodding their heads right now.

Leave a Comment