Scott MacKay Commentary: Sanders, Trump Represented Change In RI Presidential Primaries

Apr 29, 2016

Rhode Island’s political establishment was rebuked in last week’s presidential primaries as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump coasted to victories. 

RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay parses the insurgent victories.

Hillary Clinton had the support of every leading Rhode Island Democratic politician , from Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, to Congressman Jim Langevin and David Cicilline and Gov. Gina Raimondo. Yet she was blown out by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by  12 percentage points, a stunning reversal of her 18-point victory over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary. The former First Lady, senator and nation’s top diplomat won just four of 39 RI communities – downscale Pawtucket and Central Falls and wealthy East Greenwich and Barrington.

The Clinton campaign took Rhode Island seriously, with husband Bill Clinton making two appearances in the state and a passel of Democratic surrogates, including former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, coming to R.I.  And Hillary Clinton campaigned personally here.

Warwick State Rep Joe McNamara,the R.I. Democratic state chairman, apparently with a straight face, said that the outsized Sanders victory was due to his ``great ground game.’’ Since when can a ground voter push swing a dozen-point victory? Every political scientist and breathing campaign operative knows that a GOTV effort rarely sways an election where the margin is greater than four or five points.

Let’s posit for a moment that McNamara has a point. Well whose fault is it that a bunch of young enthusiastic Sanders volunteers, many of whom couldn’t find their way from Providence to Westerly without a GPS, forged a better turn-out effort that the entire hierarchy of the Democratic Party? For that answer, McNamara, Raimondo and company should look in the mirror.

It appears as if all these party poohbahs failed Clinton.

There are other factors. Sanders outspent Clinton about three to one on television. Sanders held by far the largest rally of the campaign, drawing 7,000 on a sunny April afternoon to Roger Williams Park. He treated local media with respect, sitting for one-on-one  interviews in Providence on a busy campaign day. Both Clintons viewed Rhode Island media with their usual contempt, refusing to speak with anyone.

Then there are demographics. Rhode Island’s Democratic base is largely white and liberal; the state has fewer of the African-American voters that have been the fulcrum of Clinton primary wins in other states. The Ocean State was the only one of five Acela primary states to allow independents to participate. Then there is the factor that McNamara and the Statehouse DINO, Democrat in Name Only, leaders discount: That Sanders and his supporters were swayed by the issues and messages of his campaign.

Single-payer health care, free public college tuition, breaking up big banks, fixing the corrupt campaign finance system, raising the minimum wage and restoring the ability of workers to join unions and bargain collectively were all crucial Sanders talking points.

Too often the Clinton response was to label Sanders a pie-in-the-sky candidate floating radical ideas. Single-payer health care is such a Fabian Socialist program that Harry Truman advocated it and Lyndon Johnson enshrined it in Medicare. Not to mention that just about every western industrial democracy provides health care in this manner.  The college tuition plan is inspired by the post-World War II G.I. Bill, which paid for college for veterans and helped forge the strongest middle-class the world has ever known.

As for unions, were average workers better off when unions were stronger? Many of them had  pensions and made good enough wages to buy homes and send kids to college. There was a time when the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation, but not now.

Were some of the Sanders votes inspired by anger at the status quo? Sure. What can you expect when the federal government bails out the big banks and leaves underwater homeowners to drown in a sea of foreclosure.

As for wages, the throng at the Sanders rally cheered lustily when he went after WalMart. The retailer pays workers so little that thousands of  them are eligible for food stamps and Medicaid. What this means, as Sanders says, is that middle-class Americans subsidize WalMart by paying for food and health care for their workers. Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor is not a sustainable economic future.

Sanders and Trump both fed off voters fed up with politics as usual.  It was a change election and they represented change.

Because there were no exit polls, it is difficult to speculate on precisely which attitudes drove support. Were the Trump backers reacting to his anti-immigrant memes, his support for gun rights or his disdain for foreign trade agreements?  Or an admiration of his get-things- done rhetoric? Maybe a combination? 

There was that loud chant of ``Build the Wall’’ outside Trump’s rally at the Crown Plaza in Warwick on primary eve. His campaign attracted an eclectic group of pols, from Rep. Joe Trillo, R-Warwick, a conservative Statehouse gadfly,  to developer Jerry Zarella, a onetime Democrat who served as a West Warwick town council member in the 1980s.

What we do know is that Trump, even while getting fewer votes than Clinton, cruised to a huge victory over John Kasich and Ted Cruz, who barely got out of single digits. Trump carried every Rhode Island community, save Barrington. 

What all this means for the future of Rhode Island politics isn’t yet  clear. But this we know – if the Trump and Sanders insurgencies are one-time affairs, their campaigns lasting impact won’t amount to Humphrey Bogart’s hill of beans.

Yet, if these voters, many of them first-time participants, stick around they could shape the future, pushing the Democratic establishment to the left and helping fuel an Ocean State Republican  resurgence.

Scott MacKay’s commentary airs every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org