Hillary Clinton owes her narrow Kentucky primary victory to the only two counties that voted against her in 2008, when she ran against Barack Obama.
The former secretary of state edged out Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by about 1,900 votes, less than half a percent of the 423,000 Democratic votes cast in Kentucky’s primary Tuesday.
In 2008, Clinton defeated Illinois Senator Obama by more than 2 votes to 1 in the Bluegrass State primary. She lost only two counties that year – Jefferson and Fayette, which contain the major urban centers — Louisville and Lexington.
This year, Clinton’s fortunes reversed in those cities. She won Jefferson and Fayette counties by about 23,000 votes cumulatively. Her margin of victory in the two urban centers was just enough to squeak past Sanders, who performed better in less populated parts of the state. In the remaining 118 Kentucky counties, Sanders was ahead by about 21,000 votes.
Nowhere was the difference between Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 performance more pronounced than in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. In 2008, she beat Obama by nearly 10 votes to 1 in those 31, mostly rural eastern Kentucky counties. In Pike County in 2008, for example, she won 90 percent of the vote against Obama. This year she lost Pike County by 2,500 votes, giving Sanders his largest raw-vote victory in the contest. Overall Sanders won 59 percent of the Democratic vote in those coal counties, versus Clinton’s 41 percent.
Clinton has been slammed in coal country for her infamous gaffe, in which she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Her remark was a preface to her argument that the nation should invest in rebuilding coal communities hurt by the move to renewable energy sources. But the 2016 vote may be evidence that the first half of her statement is what stuck in the state’s coal debate.
Democratic turnout was off by about 40 percent compared to 2008’s turnout of more than than 700,000.
Clinton won 38 counties this year (six of them were outside urban areas), compared to the 118 of the state’s 120 counties she won in 2008. Sanders won 82 counties, of which 61 were located outside metropolitan areas.
Clinton’s path to victory in the Bluegrass State followed a now familiar course. In states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, Clinton has won based on a stronger showing among urban voters, while Sanders has proven more popular with rural Democrats.
In practical terms, the Kentucky race is a tie. Each candidate will receive 27 delegates to represent them at this summer’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
In Oregon, Sanders won by about 9 points. He defeated Clinton in cities, small cities, and rural areas by 8.5 points, 11.1 points, and 12.2 points respectively.
How this story defines rural. This story uses the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) system to define cities, small cities, and rural areas. Metropolitan areas (called “cities” in our charts) are counties that have a city of 50,000 or more. Metropolitan areas also include the surrounding counties (no matter what size their population is) if the counties have strong economic ties to the central metropolitan area. Small cities (micropolitan areas) are outside an MSA and have a city of 10,000 or more residents. Rural areas (noncore) are counties that are not part of an MSA and do not have a city of 10,000 or greater. There’s more (lots more!) on this topic at the USDA Economic Research Service website.