RhodyVotes '16: Clinton's Ties Run Deep, But Are They Deep Enough?

Apr 11, 2016

Voter registration form.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Rhode Islanders have long supported Democrat Hillary Clinton. She won the 2008 primary against future President Barack Obama, but are residents ready to vote for her again?

In the 2008 primary, she beat the future president Barack Obama, and all of the state’s super delegates have already pledged themselves for her this primary season. As we continue our RhodyVotes 2016 coverage, we look at whether Rhode Islanders are ready to vote for Clinton a second time around.

Credit Hillary Clinton campaign

 In the cavernous main hall of Rhode Island’s community college in Warwick,  Democratic party leaders try to rev up the milling crowd of students, hoping to register a few new voters. Most of those party leaders are solidly for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But a few Senator Bernie Sanders supporters have staked a table off to the side, and want you to know they’re “feeling the Bern.”

Laura Niedel represents the Sanders campaign in Rhode Island.

"Bernie is the choice of the heart," Niedel says. "He’s the one that really excites people. He’s bringing people together. He has a message that’s resonating not just with tradition­al Democrats, which it is resonating some, but with the outcasts," says Niedel.

People disenfranchised, she says, from a political establishment that’s too centrist for her taste. But it’s that establishment here in Rhode Island that may make it difficult for Senator Sanders to do more than stir passions, contends Rhode Island Democratic party chair Joseph McNamara.

Credit Bernie Sanders campaign

“The Clintons, President Clinton and Hillary, have been around Rhode Island, they’ve spent time here," says McNamara. "We love the Clintons here in Rhode Island and they enjoy spending time with us. So there are a lot of deep ties in Rhode Island to the Clintons.”

Hillary Clinton carried the Ocean State by 18 points in 2008, as Barack Obama was heading for the nomination. She’s been a fundraiser favorite here, and there are other ties. The father of state treasurer Seth Magaziner worked as a top Clinton administration aide in the 90s, and former Olympian Michelle Kwan is working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Governor Gina Raimondo has endorsed her bid for the Democratic nomination.  Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, has stirred the passions of younger voters. But not all of them. Young Democrats of Rhode Island president Charon Rose explains why.

“It’s more of a pragmatic decision," says Rose. "I really do like Senator Sanders but I do think he is somewhat just as polarizing as Donald Trump.”

There’s no question that Republican Donald Trump is a polarizing candidate. I press Rose to explain why she sees Sanders the same way.

“I don’t think he’s the unifier of both the Democrats, the Republicans and the Independents. I don’t see him doing that," Rose says. "It’s not saying that he’s not a great senator and that he doesn’t have a place in federal government. It’s just I don’t think he would be used well as the president.”

His ideas just don’t have a chance of making it past a Republican congress, she says.

At the Providence Place Mall, shoppers are divided about Clinton. Providence visitor Patricia Pronovost says she’ll support Clinton because she’s a familiar presence.

“It seems like every time she runs I vote for her. So in some ways it’s by default and in this election it’s really as much about her experience and reasonable approach to governing as anything," Pronovost reflects.

But civil engineer Jay McGinn says he may not even vote in the Democratic primary. He’s an independent and can choose to vote in the primary for either party.

“I’m learning toward the Republican primary because I think the Democratic primary, the vote’s not going to matter because Hillary Clinton will have sewn up the nomination by that point," McGinn says. "The Republican side’s much more interesting.”

Taking a break in a chair near Macy's, computer tech Raymond Cruz says he’s an enthusiastic Clinton supporter. He believes Clinton has engaged with his community.

“Hillary is totally 100 percent friend of Latino people and black people," says Cruz. "In order to win the general election in November the only way is with support of Latino people and black people.”

Still, Senator Bernie Sanders may be giving Clinton a run for her money. One voter strolling through the mall said she thought Sanders had been good for Clinton, forcing her to clarify and examine her issues. Some political analysts say there’s still a chance Sanders could win the Rhode Island primary.    

“A lot’s going to depend on what momentum he develops over the next few weeks," says Joe Fleming, a political pollster with Fleming and Associates in Rhode Island.

“Now the question is," says Fleming, "Bernie Sanders does very well among young voters. However traditionally young voters do not tend to vote that strongly in Rhode Island in a Democratic primary. So the question is, can Bernie Sanders, come April 26, motivate young voters to get out the vote?”

It’s difficult to project just what voters will do on primary day, and exactly who will come out to vote. Primary elections tend to attract only the most ardent voters. Still, two recent polls by the Brown Taubman Center projected the primary race could be tight between Clinton and Sanders.