Looking Down the Rhode: Explaining the Rise of Donald Trump in the Ocean State

On a hot July afternoon, Brian Fallon, the Clinton campaign’s national press secretary, made his way to the Rhode Island Democratic Party headquarters. The meeting with state party officials and delegates was supposed to signify the campaign’s transition into general election mode and to appease the delegates in a state that favored Senator Bernie Sanders in its primary. Among the anticipated chorus of talking points from Bernie’s most steadfast supporters ran a common theme: a growing concern over the support for Donald Trump in Rhode Island.

Stories floated among the group included old Democratic friends switching party affiliation and promises from Bernie supporters not to vote for Hillary. Mr. Fallon, visibly awestruck by the commentary, asked the group if these instances were common, to which most in the room nodded. Although Mr. Fallon was surprised by the anecdotes, Trump’s popularity in the Ocean State makes sense upon closer inspection. Around this state, especially beyond Providence and the more ritzy parts of the southern coast, lies a disaffected, predominantly white, working-class group of voters that is receptive to a candidate like Donald Trump. In fact, in the most recent poll out of RI, Clinton only led Trump by 3 percentage points – within the poll’s margin of error. With an economy in rough shape compounded by unfavorable demographics and moderate to conservative democrats, it would seem as though Trump may have found an opening in historically deep blue Rhode Island.

The country’s smallest state has one of its worst economies, an issue that works against “establishment” politicians. The state recently ranked as the worst for business by CNBC for the fourth time in the past decade alone. In response, Governor Gina Raimondo released a statement saying, “We’ve known for a long time our roads and bridges have been neglected for a long time.” While not untrue — in fact, more than half of the state’s 766 bridges are deficient — the response speaks to a certain tone-deafness by the Governor and the State Assembly.

Although new bridges and new roads would be a nice addition, it would be a circuitous solution at best, as businesses and talented professionals are unlikely to either come to or stay in Rhode Island without a direct overhaul of the state’s tax system. The CNBC figure is hardly surprising given that the state’s tax burden (especially its property tax burden) keeps par with the likes of California and New York, states with robust and diversified economies that can handle higher taxes. Rhode Island even tops the Forbes list of states where “regulations harm small businesses the most.” Yet the Governor’s response has continued to focus on infrastructure, with the passage of a new truck toll that would cost trucks $20 per day to enter the state, signifying that she thinks more taxes and regulations are the answer.

As Representative Brian Newberry, Republican minority leader, once said, “Lots of Democrats here would be Republicans somewhere else, but they don’t feel they can win without a ‘D’ next to their name.”

With unemployment numbers in Rhode Island well above the national average, and a jobs plan from the Governor not focused on labor issues, Rhode Islanders are understandably looking towards anti-establishment politicians with populist economic messages. The success of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in Rhode Island comes as little surprise in a state that has laid off more manufacturing workers by percentage in the past decade than any other statewith well over one-third of those jobs gone. Local candidates, inspired by and capitalizing on the success of anti-establishment candidates, campaigned to the left of a number of high-profile Democratic incumbents and had notable successes. Jeanine Calkin, a Sanders campaign staffer and delegate at the Democratic National Convention, ousted Senator William Walaska, who had been in the State Senate since 1995; Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence schoolteacher, ran to the left of House Majority Leader John DeSimone, and ultimately topped the incumbent by a margin of twenty-one votes.

Rhode Island also does not represent Secretary Clinton’s most loyal block of voters. In a racially polarizing election, Hillary will have to score huge margins among millennial and minority voters in order to defeat Donald Trump. Unfortunately for Hillary, Rhode Island is one of the oldest and whitest states in the union. If she cannot rely on young and minority voters in Rhode Island, like she could in a state like Maryland or Pennsylvania, then she’ll have to rely on Rhode Island’s unconventional base: conservative and moderate Democrats.

Statistically, the Ocean State has the least ideological difference between the two major parties out of any state in the country. As Representative Brian Newberry, Republican minority leader, once said, “Lots of Democrats here would be Republicans somewhere else, but they don’t feel they can win without a ‘D’ next to their name.” Suprisingly, Representative Newberry shares an A+ rating from the NRA with Democratic Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. In fact, the median Democrat in Rhode Island is more conservative than the median Democrat in Georgia.

The state’s elected Democrats also hardly represent the more social and racial justice oriented liberals of the national party. The state recently passed law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, a practice that systematically excludes many minority voters from the electoral process, and, in 2013, begrudgingly became the last state in New England to pass same-sex marriage; only Democrats opposed the legislation. The type of threat Donald Trump poses for many of the social groups that make up the Democratic Party — women, gay voters, and racial justice advocates — may not hold much water against Rhode Island’s overwhelmingly white, Catholic, and older voters.

Candidates as unconventional as Donald Trump are rare, so perhaps after this election Rhode Island’s quirky political scene will return to some sense of normalcy. However, for now, Trump’s hand in Rhode Island is surprisingly strong. Still, despite Trump’s peculiar advantages within Rhode Island, these very same qualities could weaken him in traditionally red states like Georgia and Arizona. Trump’s populist zeal may gain him votes from more conservative blue-collar voters in a state like Rhode Island, but that same zeal is largely why Trump is running far behind Secretary Clinton among higher-income and more-educated white voters, a demographic won handily by Mitt Romney in 2012.

Unfortunately for the Trump campaign, this kind of demographic reversal may be detrimental in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. If Trump can decisively win the disaffected, working class voters in the rust-belt states that helped elect and re-elect President Obama, he has a real chance to win in November. However, this is contingent on Trump maintaining Mitt Romney’s dominance largely among middle class suburban women, an unlikely scenario. So, even though Trump’s performance in Rhode Island won’t determine the outcome of the election, a Trump victory here would turn the heads of those in the political world and Brown University students alike — and would signify that big political change might be on the state’s horizon.

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