RI on the sidelines this Super Tuesday, 5 years after moving primary to April

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis led a successful 2011 push to move Rhode Island’s primary from “Super Tuesday” in early March to late April, he predicted the change would make the tiny Ocean State “more relevant” to the presidential nominating process.

Five years later, Rhode Islanders are looking on this Super Tuesday with the Democratic nominating process appearing close to a done deal while the Republican race remains in flux – with nearly two months left before local voters dole out the state’s 22 elected Democratic delegates and 19 Republican ones.

Yet Mollis’s successor, fellow Democrat Nellie Gorbea, says she has no regrets about the change urged by her predecessor, and no plans to propose a move back to March – even if political junkies might wish Rhode Island was still part of the Super Tuesday action, as it was every four years from 1984 through 2008.

“I think that the move was done for good reasons,” Gorbea told WPRI.com. “Yes, it’s late in the process – although this year, who knows? It could be an interesting primary nail-biter up until the very end.”

Gorbea echoed one of Mollis’s prime rationales for the 2011 move: creating a regional primary in the Northeast. That effort was only partly successful – Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island will all vote April 26, but New York is voting a week earlier, while the rest of the region will have already voted in February and March.

Gorbea said the National Association of Secretaries of State is discussing the creation of a series of regional primaries, with each region rotating who goes first. “This puts us into line with that kind of thinking,” she said.

Two other benefits of the move to April cited by Gorbea: it brought Rhode Island into compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, and it moved candidate filing deadlines out of the December holiday season.

Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia political-science lecturer who tracks primary schedules at the website Frontloading HQ, said there was another benefit for the Rhode Island Democratic Party in joining a regional primary in late April – the national party gave them bonus delegates to the Democratic National Convention as a reward.

“What Rhode Island Democrats got out of the deal for 2012 – and will again in 2016, for that matter – is additional voice in the process; not during primary season, per se, but they did increase their impact at the national convention,” Putnam told WPRI.com in an email. (The Republican Party offers no such bonus.)

“If Rhode Island is lost in the shuffle either way, then why not send more activists to the convention?” Putnam said. “Those are the donors and volunteers that come in handy for a general election candidate and campaign after the conventions.”

Not everyone agrees.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry filed legislation last year to move Rhode Island’s primary back to late March. He said he did so at the request of the state GOP, which wanted an earlier vote for administrative reasons rather than political ones.

While Newberry thinks the entire primary season starts too soon nowadays, “I do think you want your state’s primary to be as close to the beginning of the process as possible,” he said. “I don’t think the process should start so early, but that’s where you want to go. … If you wait too long, the nomination may well be wrapped up by then.”

George C. Edwards III, a political-science professor at the University of Texas A&M and an expert on primaries, agreed. “A late primary is usually not an advantage, which is why states try to hold them as early as possible,” he said in an email, adding: “Usually the race is decided by the end of April.”

Charles Block, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia and another expert on primaries, said there have been only two recent examples of a nominating contest’s outcome still being uncertain in late April: 1976, when Ronald Reagan challenged President Ford, and 2008, when Hillary Clinton hoped she could still block Barack Obama by wooing Democratic superdelegates.

Both Clinton and Obama held rallies in Rhode Island that year, which was the final time the state’s primary was on Super Tuesday. Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming recalled that Clinton made a big push locally as she was losing steam to Obama nationally, and went on to win the state amid record voter turnout in the Democratic primary.

“Hillary Clinton knew she needed to win a state, and Rhode Island was it,” Fleming said.

So could 2016 be another outlier, elevating the importance of Rhode Island’s April primary?

While Republican Donald Trump continues to hold a lead in the polls and is ahead in delegates, it’s clear some members of the GOP establishment are dead set against his nomination – and rival candidate Marco Rubio has pledged to fight Trump all the way to the floor of the Republican National Convention in July if necessary. That could draw candidates to Rhode Island ahead of the April 26 contest.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders looks increasingly unlikely to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the nomination. But he’s also pledged to continue his campaign no matter the odds, which could lead both campaigns to pay at least some attention to Rhode Island before late April.

That uncertainty is why Gorbea cautions against having Rhode Island try to pick a primary date based on political positioning.

“It’s hard to craft legislation on something that can be so different from one election cycle to the next,” she said. “I think that these other reasons are compelling.”

Larry Sabato, a prominent political prognosticator at the University of Virginia, agreed. “It’s a fool’s game for a state to guess the moment of maximum impact in the presidential primary season,” he said.

“More often than not, the decision point is before early April,” he said. “So if you’re playing the odds, I supposed you’d schedule the primary by then. But it’s a crapshoot.”

Who won Rhode Island’s presidential primary?

Primaries where incumbents faced little opposition are excluded.

  • 2012: Mitt Romney (R)
  • 2008: Hillary Clinton (D), John McCain (R)
  • 2004: John Kerry (D)
  • 2000: Al Gore (D), John McCain (R)
  • 1996: Bob Dole (R)
  • 1992: Paul Tsongas (D), George H.W. Bush (R)
  • 1988: Mike Dukakis (D), George H.W. Bush (R)
  • 1984: Gary Hart (D)
  • 1980: Ted Kennedy (D), Ronald Reagan (R)
  • 1976: “Uncommitted” (D), Gerald Ford (R)

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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