Clinton swamped in RI by Sanders, drop in voters

AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith/John Minchillo, File

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island is “Clinton country” no more.

The progressive optimism of Bernie Sanders, combined with a large drop in the number of voters casting a ballot, on Tuesday handed Hillary Clinton her family’s first loss in the Ocean State since Paul Tsongas defeated Bill Clinton in the state’s 1992 Democratic presidential primary. Sanders won this year’s primary 55% to 43%.

It was already clear on the eve of the primary that Sanders was poised to do well in Rhode Island: a Public Policy Polling survey gave him a slight lead, and demographic analyses by political scientist Alan Abramowitz and pollster Matt McDermott both indicated he should win the state. His rally in Providence drew more than 7,000 to Roger Williams Park on Sunday.

Real-Time Results: RI & CT Presidential Primary Election 2016 »

The PPP survey showed Clinton was generally popular with likely Democratic primary voters, with a 58% favorable rating. But they liked Sanders even better, giving him a 68% favorable rating, and it showed in his victory over the former secretary of state.

“I am proud that we were able to win a resounding victory tonight in Rhode Island, the one state with an open primary where independents had a say in the outcome,” Sanders said in a statement late Tuesday night. “Democrats should recognize that the ticket with the best chance of winning this November must attract support from independents as well as Democrats.”

The Clinton campaign did not issue a statement about the Rhode Island results. With 24 pledged delegates on the line in Rhode Island, Sanders is expected to receive 14 and Clinton 10. But she will still come out with more Rhode Island delegates overall – 19 total – because all nine of the state’s so-called “superdelegates” are backing her. Rhode Island was an outlier on an otherwise strong night for Clinton nationally that saw her winning four of five states.

Clinton may have been hampered by a lack of organization in the state. An effort by local Sanders supporters to organize support for him has been active and visible for months, more so than anything for Clinton. Clinton’s well-liked state director, Nick Black, was hired only about a month ago, giving him relatively little time to prepare. Even a last-minute second visit by Bill Clinton, similar to one credited with helping narrowly secure Massachusetts for his wife last month, didn’t turn the tide.

Tuesday’s result was a painful turnabout for Clinton after the 2008 primary, when her 18-point win over Barack Obama in Rhode Island was a bright spot for her when she needed a victory. On Tuesday the number of voters casting a ballot for Clinton dropped by more than half compared with 2008, from 109,000 to just 52,000.

Sanders had said at Sunday’s rally he hoped Rhode Island was about to see “the largest turnout for a Democratic primary in the history of the state.” Far from it: overall turnout in the primary sank by a third compared with 2008 (though any disappointment on Sanders’ part was likely eased by the fact that he won anyway).

To put the scale of the turnout decline in perspective, Sanders won the primary by 12 points even while receiving fewer votes than Obama got when he lost it by 18. (The story was strikingly different in Rhode Island’s Republican presidential primary, where enthusiasm about Donald Trump led to the second-highest voter turnout in a GOP primary since 1992.)

A place that encapsulated Clinton’s troubles Tuesday: the blue-collar city of Johnston.

Johnston was her best city in 2008, delivering her 75% of the vote, and in an effort to repeat the success she returned there last Saturday night to campaign at the Atwood Grille. No such luck: Sanders won Johnston with 52% of the vote as turnout there dropped by more than half compared with 2008, declining more than in any other Rhode Island community. Over in the vote-rich West Bay cities of Warwick and Cranston, Clinton’s vote total fell from 19,000 to 7,400.

The Clinton campaign’s heavy focus on Latino voters – highlighted by multiple visits from prominent Latino Democrats and a bilingual rally on Saturday – also didn’t appear to pay the hoped-for dividends.

In majority-minority Central Falls, where Clinton opened a field office and held the rally Saturday, she won with only 58%, down from 70% in 2008. Indeed, once the Central Falls results came in just 20 minutes after polls closed on Tuesday night it was clear to political observers Clinton wasn’t going to have a good night. As it turned out, the state’s smallest city was one of only four communities won by Clinton, two of them wealthy (Barrington and East Greenwich) and two lower-income (Central Falls and Pawtucket).

The results also showed clear evidence of Sanders’ particular strengths. In South Kingstown, home of the University of Rhode Island and where the Sanders campaign opened a field office, the drop in voter turnout compared with 2008 was only half as large as it was statewide – and Sanders cleaned up, taking the town 62% to 37%. (Clinton lost South Kingstown in 2008, as well, but by a smaller margin.)

The Sanders victory was a rebuke to Rhode Island’s Democratic establishment, which was lockstep behind her, from Gov. Gina Raimondo and the congressional delegation down to Central Falls Mayor James Diossa. So few elected Rhode Island officials backed Sanders that his campaign failed to respond to repeated requests for a list of their names.

Gleeful Rhode Island Republicans watching the returns last night expressed hope that Clinton’s weakness against Sanders could be an indication she’ll have trouble carrying the Ocean State against Trump, the presumed Republican nominee, come November. But such a turn of events would require a massive shift in the federal political lean of Rhode Island, which has voted for the Democrat in nine of the past 10 presidential elections.

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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