5 things you need to know about today’s RI presidential primary

Polls close at 8 p.m.; get up to speed here before the results come in tonight

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island voters are heading to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in one of the most high-profile presidential primaries since the state started holding them in 1972.

After a whirlwind three days that saw four of the five major Democratic and Republican candidates visit Rhode Island to campaign, Ocean State residents are having their say about who should be the two parties’ nominees come the fall.

To get you up to speed before polls close at 8 p.m., here’s a quick cheat sheet. Check WPRI.com and tune into Eyewitness News throughout the day for updates, full results and in-depth analysis.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In-Depth Coverage: 2016 Voter Resource Guide

Your usual polling place might not be open, so double check.

(Madeleine Wright, WPRI-TV)As it has in the past, the R.I. Board of Elections is opening far fewer polling places for the presidential primary compared with a typical November election – only 144 of 419 are open today, to be exact. That’s because turnout is always lower in a primary, even a presidential one, than in a general election.

Despite some concerns expressed by Common Cause Rhode Island and the presidential campaigns, the board’s staff says it’s confident the reduced number of polling places won’t be a problem, particularly because there will be more booths than usual at the ones that are operating. They also point out that they kept roughly two-thirds of polling places closed back in the 2008 presidential primary, too, and there were no significant problems despite record turnout that year.

If the day goes smoothly, the board will be vindicated. If not, expect the criticism to be intense. And to check where your polling place is, you can use the Google-powered tool on our WPRI.com Voters’ Guide or you can visit the secretary of state’s website.

Can Bernie Sanders end the Clintons’ Rhode Island winning streak?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, talks to Bernie Sanders after a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Hillary Clinton, right, and Bernie Sanders in November. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in Rhode Island’s Democratic primary by a whopping 18 percentage points. The polls then had clearly signaled her strength, giving her an average lead of almost 10 points before the primary. Plus, her husband had carried the state in his two White House races.

This year looks very different. A PPP survey released Monday showed Bernie Sanders with a small lead over Clinton – reinforcing the idea that the pair are locked in a tight race. (Few political observers put much stock in a Brown University survey out Sunday that suggested Sanders was languishing at 34%.) On top of that, models created by political scientist Alan Abramowitz and pollster Matt McDermott both suggest Sanders is the favorite to win Rhode Island on Tuesday.

In an interview with WPRI.com over the weekend, Sanders pledged to stay in the race until the final primary in June. A win in Rhode Island would give his campaign a much-needed boost now that he’s fallen far behind Clinton in pledged delegates (and even more so when so-called “superdelegates” are counted). It would also be a striking rebuke to Rhode Island’s top Democratic politicians, all of whom are backing Clinton. The Clinton campaign is taking nothing for granted: Bill Clinton was here on Monday.

Keep two numbers in mind for the Republican primary: 10% and 67%.

trump-kasich-cruz-featured-image-collageAt this point, the Republican presidential primary is all about delegate math – specifically whether Donald Trump can secure 1,237 delegates and win the nomination without a contested convention, or if Ted Cruz and John Kasich can stop him.

Rhode Island has only 19 GOP delegates at stake in the primary, but with every delegate mattering at this point, no campaign can afford to take the smallest state for granted. And unlike some other states you may have heard about – Florida, New York – where a winning candidate gets all the delegates, the GOP rules in Rhode Island are much friendlier to second- and third-place finishers.

The two numbers to keep in mind are 10% and 67%. To win any delegates at all in Rhode Island, a Republican candidate needs to receive at least 10% of the vote. That shouldn’t be a problem for Trump, who has led in every poll so far and held a raucous rally in Warwick on Monday, or for Kasich, who was above 20% in all three polls released in recent days and campaigned at Bryant on Saturday. But it could be an issue for Cruz, who received only 14.5% in New York last week and has been hovering in the low teens in surveys; he also never visited Rhode Island to campaign.

The GOP rules split the 19 Rhode Island delegates three ways: 13 based on the statewide vote, three based on the 1st Congressional District vote, and three based on the 2nd Congressional District vote. With only three delegates at stake in the congressional districts, if all three candidates hit 10% they’ll split them evenly – unless Trump hits 67% in a district, an unlikely but not impossible outcome, in which case the rules say he’ll get two of the three delegates, leaving one fewer for Cruz.

Could voter turnout in Rhode Island reach the record set in 2008?

west warwick votersPractically speaking, presidential primaries in late April don’t often matter much, because by that point it’s usually clear who the party nominees will be. But not this year – which explains why candidates have been stumping in Rhode Island in recent days, and why the state has received national media attention.

With the stakes high and lots of publicity, political observers will be watching closely to see how many Rhode Island voters actually show up to the polls. The benchmark is 2008, when the Clinton-Obama race drew 188,000 Democratic voters to the polls, with 28,000 more casting ballots in the GOP race between John McCain and Mike Huckabee. By comparison, the previous time both parties had open contests for president – in 2000 – Rhode Island only saw 85,000 voters go to the polls in total.

One of the X factors when it comes to turnout: the unique candidacies of Sanders and Trump. Each man has drawn huge crowds at his rallies nationwide, which some think means they could draw new voters to the polls in states like Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is one of five states holding a primary on Tuesday.

With five Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states voting, today has been dubbed “Super Tuesday IV,” “the I-95 Primary” and “the Acela Primary” by some pundits. Two of the states with primaries are in New England: Rhode Island and Connecticut. The other three are Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. Analysts are likely to look for trends across the five states when they review the results.

One thing to keep in mind: among the five states voting today, Rhode Island is the only one that allows unaffiliated voters to cast a ballot in a party primary; in the other four, you have to be a registered Republican or Democrat to do so. That’s one reason Sanders, who has done well with independents elsewhere, is seen as having a strong shot in Rhode Island.

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, Facebook and Instagram

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