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WVU expert weighs in on who benefited most from the gubernatorial debate

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Declaring who won the gubernatorial debate between incumbent Gov. Jim Justice and his Democratic challenger Ben Salango is tough. However, answering who had the most to gain from the debate is much easier.

John Kilwein, the West Virginia University Department of Political Science chair, said Salango had the most to gain from Tuesday night’s debate. He said that’s because, as a Kanawha Co. Commissioner, Salango has not had the same level of exposure as Justice.


I think Commissioner Salango had more to gain from the debate because he’s well known, obviously in the Charleston area, but he has to get his name out there across the state. Given the pandemic, that takes away his ability to engage in that kind of small retail politics where you get to meet people and convince them and get to change their minds. And so I think for him, the debate was a perfect opportunity for him to get out in front.

John Kilwein – WVU Department of Political Science

How much of an impact Salango’s exposure made in the polls is hard to say, but Kilwein said it couldn’t have hurt to get that kind of statewide exposure. Part of the reason is that people who watch political debates are civically engaged and active voters who could have been swayed to vote for him.

Justice during the debate

Kilwein said, unlike Salango, Justice has had a lot of direct contact across the whole state recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, he said, the pandemic has helped the governor because he had many problems before the health crisis that has been largely thrown to the wayside.

“I mean, tax issues, business issues, you know, kind of the same things that are dogging President Trump,” Kilwein said. “Also a rebellion was in his own party in terms of county chairs of the Republican Party, but when you compare him to other red-state governors, he’s actually taking the pandemic relatively seriously and has paid attention to Dr. Marsh and other experts. And so I think that he has benefited by his relatively reasonable handling of the pandemic and also that he’s been out in front of people in a way that isn’t controversial and is going to support his image as a capable leader.”

Salango during the debate

With election day less than three weeks away, Kilwein said things are not looking good for Salango and many other Democratic candidates in the state. However, he concedes that a lot could change between now and then.

“It’s going to have to be a pretty big blue tsunami for some of these Democratic candidates to win in West Virginia,” Kilwein said. “I mean, West Virginia did shift significantly in 2016 and had the widest percentage in favor of Trump in the 50 states. The one poll I did see it did come down significantly, but it’s still a sizeable lead. But 2020 has been such a crazy year, and we’re just under three weeks away, that’s three lifetimes in this year, so who knows what’s going to happen.”

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