Why Floyd County burned bright for Bernie

By: - March 6, 2020 12:05 am

A hand-painted Bernie Sanders sign along U.S. 221 in Floyd County. Floyd Tire’s owner said he’s a supporter of President Donald Trump but let a customer put the Sanders sign up. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

FLOYD — On Super Tuesday, only three Virginia localities voted for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Vice President Joe Biden in Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary: Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Floyd County.

For observers, the first two make sense: Charlottesville and Harrisonburg are home to the University of Virginia and James Madison University, respectively, and Sanders has proven especially popular among young people. 

Floyd County seems like more of a conundrum: it’s a Blue Ridge Mountains county that’s reliably voted Republican for decades. In 2016, 66% of its voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump, which squares with how Republican candidates tend to run in Floyd County. 

Yet Sanders won a bigger percentage in Floyd County than he did anywhere else in Virginia. What gives?

The answer boils down to Floyd County’s peculiar melting pot of politics. 

“There’s something wild and crazy and special about Floyd,” said Anne Armistead, a 10-year resident of the county who administers the Floyd Berners group on Facebook. “It’s hard to put your finger on.”

The sign outside Republic of Floyd, a shop that has become a local icon and symbol for Floyd County outside its borders. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“There’s less reliance in Floyd on being told what to think,” said Tom Maxey, another Floyd Berner. “I think the media buzz surrounding the election affected the outcome, along with voter suppression. But people up here think for themselves.”

In western Virginia, Floyd County is known for its music scene and “hippie” culture that most obviously manifests itself in FloydFest, a music festival that draws close to 15,000 annually. 

This reputation grew from Floyd’s history as a destination for the back-to-the-land movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That movement produced a number of intentional communities within the county today, as well as making the county a magnet for like-minded people. Now, a generation later, that cultural churn has produced an “alternative” community of Floyd progressives that stands alongside—and mixes with—“traditional” residents who lean conservative. 

That political culture generated not only Sanders’ best percentage within a Virginia locality in 2020, but also in 2016, when he won an eye-popping 70 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 30 percent

Armistead said Sanders’ roots in Vermont — a mountainous, largely agricultural state, not unlike Floyd — helps explain his appeal. 

“He represents farming,” Armistead said. “I remember driving up [U.S.] 221 to Roanoke in 2016, and seeing a field where some farmer had put up a huge, handmade billboard with Bernie on it. That was delightful.”

Maxey said Sanders appeals to people in Floyd who have seen the widening gap between the rich and poor, with many people struggling to afford health care and college.

“If you’re in the trenches, trying to look after a family and keep your health insurance, oh God, it’s a struggle,” Maxey said. “I think there’s a lot of people in Floyd County like that who see that reality … Bernie speaks the truth and stays on his message. He embodies everything I grew up thinking America should be.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied last month at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center ahead of Super Tuesday. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Floyd residents tend to be more “independent-minded” and supportive of insurgent-type candidates, said Lauren Yoder, a farmer, Republican and member of the county Board of Supervisors. In the 2016 Republican primary, Trump, who was still viewed as an insurgent, ran 7 percentage points ahead of his state average in Floyd County. Before that, Ron Paul enjoyed outsized support here as well.

“For whatever reason, I think people here are very independent, and are not interested in what’s viewed as the establishment or what the party line is on a lot of issues,” Yoder said. “I see that a lot.”

In many ways, the bigger question isn’t why Sanders won Floyd in 2020, but why he didn’t run as strongly as he did four years ago, especially since more people voted this year.

In 2020, Sanders vote totals dropped from 936 to 740, even as the total number of votes grew from 1,336 to 1,776, so his percentage fell to 42%, according to the Virginia Public Access Project and Virginia State Board of Elections.

The decline can be accounted for by the sharp increase in the number of candidates on the ballot—from three in 2016 to 13 in 2020, with many attracting votes even though they had dropped out of the race before Super Tuesday. Biden won 628 votes—only 7 percentage points fewer than Sanders—with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren winning 231, former New York City major Michael Bloomberg winning 108, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard winning 24, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar winning 20, and the rest of the candidates with fewer than 10 each.

Another factor in Sanders’ win may be Floyd County’s racial make-up, which is 96 percent white and 2 percent black, compared to the Virginia average of 70 percent white and 20 percent black. By comparison, Roanoke city, which is 63 percent white and 30 percent black, voted for Biden over Sanders by a 51 percent to 26 percent margin.

Earl White lives in Indian Valley, the only precinct that voted for Biden over Sanders. White, who is black, voted for Warren because “a lot of what she said appealed to me,” as well as because he didn’t want to automatically fall in step with other black voters due to the endorsements that Biden was accumulating. He’s not surprised that many of his neighbors voted for Biden, though.

“Indian Valley is a very conservative part of Floyd County—it seems to be the most conservative—and even Democrats out there seem to be a lot more conservative than what Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would have to offer,” White said.

Armistead said the Floyd Berners Facebook group was disappointed in the results of Tuesday’s vote. She said “it hit me extra hard” on Tuesday when she started texting progressive friends across Virginia, only to learn that many of them were voting for Warren instead of Sanders.

“I was so sad and disgusted,” Armistead said. “I know she has no path to victory. I used to really like her, but see her role now as spoiler. That surprised me, because to me, Bernie is far more feminist than Warren has ever been.”

Ultimately, Armistead said she “wasn’t surprised” Biden won. She expected “establishment Democrats” would do something to deny Sanders the nomination, and so Buttigieg and Klobuchar ending their campaigns to endorse Biden ahead of Super Tuesday made sense to her. 

Asked if she’ll hold her nose and vote for Biden should he win the nomination, Armistead was blunt.

“Hell no,” she responded. “I’m a ‘Never Dem’ now. I’ve watched them be crooked. They’re not representing me. They’re representing the oligarch. I didn’t vote for [Barack] Obama’s second term. Bernie is only one I’ll vote for this time. If he doesn’t make it, I will vote for the Green Party. There is no home in the Democratic Party for progressives. All they want is a vote, then pat us on the head and tell us to go home.”

Maxey felt much the same.

If Biden wins the nomination, “I’m burning this thing down,” Maxey said. “The DNC [Democratic National Committee] has got to go, or at least the leadership, or we’ve got to start another party. When you look at what Bernie did this time, that’s the foundation for another party. That’s enough for us.”

CORRECTION: This post has been updated. Lauren Yoder is a former chairman of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors and a current member.

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Mason Adams
Mason Adams

A native of Clifton Forge, Mason has covered Blue Ridge and Appalachian communities since 2001. He worked for Waynesville, N.C.’s Enterprise-Mountaineer from 2001 to 2003 and The Roanoke Times from 2003 through 2012. He’s freelanced since then, with bylines in Politico Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Vice, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Scalawag, Belt Magazine and many more. He lives in Floyd County.