Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has done more than any other Democrat up for reelection this year to distance himself from President Obama, said he does not know if he will vote for Obama or presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in November.
“I’ll look at the options,” Manchin said this week. The last three years “have made it pretty rough” for his state, he said.
That stance is at odds with almost every other Democrat who is up for reelection this year or is from a state that Romney is likely to win. And it’s an indication of the unique effort Manchin has made to establish his independence from Obama and other Democrats. The senator has regularly used floor speeches and closely watched votes to, as he puts it, “respectfully” highlight differences with Obama, especially on environmental issues. He said Obama has never called him or sought a one-on-one conversation.
Manchin said his own vote will depend on how his constituents view the contest.
“The people in West Virginia, they basically look at the candidates—whatever you’re running for, whether it be the president itself, or whatever—[they look at] the performance and the result that’s been attained,” Manchin said when asked how he will vote. “Right now in West Virginia, these first three and a half years haven’t been that good to West Virginia. So, then you look [at] what the options will be, who will be on the other end.”
Calling it all but “inevitable that Governor Romney will be that person” on the Republican side, Manchin said it remains to be seen whether his constituents “feel connected” to Romney. Romney’s support for the budget plan offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., raises the question of whether that proposal “basically attacks entitlement in an unfair way,” Manchin said. The state has a high percentage of residents relying on federal benefits.
“I am just waiting for it to play out. I am not jumping in one way or another,” Manchin said. “I’m worried about me. I’ve said it’s not a team sport. You need to go out and work for yourself.”
Manchin’s position echoes the stance he took during his 2010 special election campaign to serve out the term of the late Sen. Robert Byrd. He declined ahead of that election to endorse a second term for Obama or to say if he would vote for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to remain majority leader.
If Manchin in fact votes based on which candidate most of his constituents embrace, he will likely cast his ballot for Romney. Obama lost West Virginia by 13 points in 2008 and remains unpopular there. While Romney’s wealth, Mormonism, and views on entitlement reform may not be a perfect fit in a state that remains relatively poor, Protestant, and dependent on federal spending, Obama probably will not take the state.
Many campaign strategists therefore see Manchin’s steering clear of Obama as a political necessity. Like Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., whose state Obama is expected to win big, Manchin must convince a sizable percentage of voters to split their ballots in order to prevail.
That is a trick that is getting harder to pull off. The share of voters who split their ballots between a presidential candidate and a Senate candidate has steadily declined since 1960. It is now common for more than 80 percent of voters who approve of a president’s performance to back the Senate nominee from the same party, a National Journal analysis of competitive races since 2004 found. Similarly, more than 80 percent of voters who disapprove of a president’s performance tend to support the Senate candidate from the other party, according to the analysis. That is Manchin’s challenge.
Other Senate Democrats up this year, while also working to highlight their independence, did not hesitate to say they will vote for Obama.
“Of course,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “With pleasure.”
Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., also said they will vote for Obama, as did Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who is up in 2014.
“Overall, considering where the economy was and where it is now and the fact that Osama bin Laden was running around and he took care of that problem, I support him,” Tester said.
Stances like Manchin’s were more common in past decades, when conservative southern Democrats still regularly won Senate races in states that Republicans, starting with Richard Nixon in the 1960s, increasingly dominated at the presidential level.
Then-Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., famously backed President Bush in 2004. After running as an independent following his defeat in the 2006 Democratic primary, Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., endorsed John McCain in 2008.
Lieberman, who is not seeking reelection this year, also said he will not take a position in this year’s presidential race.
“I’ll make that decision in the ballot box,” he said.
This article appears in the April 20, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.