CHARLESTON, West Virginia — West Virginia has gone back and forth between red and blue for decades, electing Democrats while overwhelmingly backing President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. So it's anyone's guess who will emerge the victor in the race between Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and his Republican challenger, West Virginia State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. That's where veteran pollster Frank Luntz comes in.
In most states, Trump’s overwhelming popularity would mean a Democratic senator wouldn’t have a chance, but Manchin is doing quite well: According to one of the latest polls out of the state, which was conducted before Manchin voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, he was up by about eight points.
So what is it about West Virginia voters that allows them to walk a line between support for Trump and support for Manchin — and how did Manchin’s vote for Kavanaugh affect their view of the senator? Luntz recently convened a group of 12 swing voters to try to answer that question.
Participants had either voted for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections, or voted only Republican but expressed support for Manchin. The focus group was conducted on the evening of October 5, after Manchin had announced he would be supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Most of the panel seemed ambivalent about the allegations lodged against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford, saying they believed she was assaulted, but not necessarily by Kavanaugh.
"I believe that she probably was victimized. I have no concerns whatsoever about her story. I just don't think she knows exactly who it was," office manager Deana Meadows said. Another panelist said she didn't deserve to have her claims heard because she waited so long to come forward.
"Nothing takes 40 years. If you're that much of a weak person, that it took you 40 years to get enough... If you're that way, anybody can talk you into anything. If you have that little faith in yourself, that it took you 40 years to confront someone who put their hand over your mouth?" general manager Michael Gray said, explaining that his wife had been sexually abused. "I'm not going to destroy a man's career over the fact that she's weak enough to wait 40 years to make the allegation."
And that affects how they feel about Manchin.
"We know that Joe Manchin is a political opportunist, right? He licked his finger, he stuck it in the wind, and he said, 'Which way is this vote gonna go? I'm gonna jump on that,' and that's the only reason he did that. I mean, he followed the lead of Chuck Schumer," said Phalen Kuckuck, a Republican political consultant.
Some, like Kuckuck, saw Manchin's vote for Kavanaugh as a nakedly political move, while others said it means he’s listening to his constituents.
"The Southern Democrats, he might be the last one on the planet. He's a West Virginia Democrat, and somehow or another, I find that refreshing, that you can get a guy almost John McCain-style, that kind of looks at everything, going, 'OK, what's it to my state? What way should I go based off what my state thinks, not what the political leadership wants,'" Gray said.
But no one seemed particularly happy about the state of politics right now — or their choices for senator.
"There's an alarmingly high addiction rate, a lot of people are uneducated, if you look at the stats for college dropouts, high school dropouts, at an all-time high," finance manager Cassandra Hudnall said. "A lot of teenage pregnancies, the welfare, the amount of people who are on some type of public assistance, it's alarmingly high."
This segment originally aired October 9, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.