Sunday, April 22, 2012

Manchin's Fence Straddling

Most folks shouldn't be overly concerned about West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's revelation that he hasn't decided whether to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney this fall.

Manchin, 64, was one of the few Democrats who prospered in the 2010 midterms, winning the seat long held by the late Robert Byrd.

His victory really came as no surprise. Electing Democrats is a long tradition in West Virginia. Since the Stock Market Crash of 1929, West Virginia has elected (or appointed) more Republicans to complete unexpired Senate terms than have been elected to full six–year terms — and there haven't been many of either.

And supporting Democratic presidential nominees has been a tradition there, too — at least, until recently.

But Manchin's margin fell short of what was to be expected in 2010.

The campaign in 2010 was only about who would complete Byrd's unexpired term, which still had two years left. Manchin knew that, if he won, he would have to go before the voters again two years later.

And, in 2010, as a popular governor, he was able to win the vacant Senate seat in part because he had insisted he would keep an open mind about whether to support Obama in 2012.

That's a promise he seems to be keeping.

Even if he has made up his mind which candidate to support, Manchin has walked a fine line in his home state, and he will continue to walk it for most of the campaign. Obama has not been very popular in West Virginia, and, although he was a popular governor, Manchin only won election to the Senate by less than 55,000 votes out of more than half a million cast.

There isn't much room for error, and Manchin is probably wise to keep his cards close to his vest. Even if polls show Obama taking an unlikely lead in West Virginia, my guess is that it will be tenuous, at best, and Manchin probably won't reveal his presidential preference publicly.

He's likely to retain the seat in a rematch with 2010 Republican candidate John Raese, reports Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, but Manchin doesn't want to take any chances of alienating anyone.

West Virginia has voted Republican in the last three presidential elections, and many voters there remain upset with the health care reform law that may be overturned by the Supreme Court.

In October 2010, several months after the law was passed, Manchin told the voters he would have voted against the legislation if he had been in the Senate at the time.

Even then, he was keeping his distance from the administration

As I said earlier, I think that will continue.

What does it mean? I'm inclined to think it doesn't mean as much as a lot of people would like to think. It strikes me as a political move, not a philosophical one.

After all, it isn't as if Manchin's fence straddling represents some kind of defection — or potential defection. Manchin wasn't a member of the Senate when it supported the so–called Obamacare legislation — but he did say early in the year that he supported it (only to reverse himself before the election).

And he drew a distinction between himself and other Democrats by resisting the bill to reduce carbon emissions — a bill that was unpopular in coal country.

Let's keep Manchin's electoral history in mind here. When he was elected governor the first time in 2004, he received 64% of the popular vote. When he sought a second term in 2008, he received 70%.

His 53% showing in the 2010 Senate race must have been a bit of a shock, but it appears to have conditioned him.

If Manchin had received three–fifths of the vote in 2010 — and if polls had shown him enjoying that kind of lead late in the campaign — he might still have spoken favorably of the health care reform legislation.

But Manchin had to fight for it — and he may have to fight for it again.

His main interest in 2010 is his Senate seat — and the absence of support for his party's nominee is not a reflection — either favorable or unfavorable — on the president's performance in office.

Now, if other embattled Democrats begin to defect, that will be another story.

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