PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Islanders’ support for the Democratic presidential ticket bounced back in 2020 after slumping four years earlier, but President Trump saw notable gains in communities heavily populated by Latinos.
Overall, Joe Biden easily beat Trump in Rhode Island with nearly 60% of the vote, bringing the state closer in line with presidential elections prior to 2016, when support for Hillary Clinton slumped to 54.4%. That was the lowest share of the vote for a Democratic nominee in Rhode Island since her husband Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in the three-way 1992 race.
But statewide support for Trump in Rhode Island this year – 38.9% as of 6 p.m. Wednesday — was unchanged from 2016, as two communities, Lincoln and West Warwick, flipped back to the Democratic ticket after going into the president’s column four years ago. (Trump in 2016 won the most cities and towns — 14 — since George H.W. Bush in 1988.)
The shift from four years ago was also evident in the raw vote numbers, as Rhode Island set a new record for voter turnout, with over 503,000 ballots counted as of Wednesday evening and a small number still being tabulated. That broke Rhode Island’s previous record of about 475,000 votes in the 2008 Barack Obama landslide.
Biden had about 298,000 votes across Rhode Island as of Wednesday evening, over 45,000 more than Clinton received in 2016; Trump had about 196,000, an increase of over 15,000 compared with his performance four years ago.
Biden has now surpassed the 296,571 votes Obama got in 2008, though the record-holder is still Lyndon Johnson, who got 315,463 votes in Rhode Island back in 1964.
Yet while Democratic support went up in almost every Rhode Island community compared to 2016, Trump made notable gains in Central Falls and Providence, where historically Republicans have had little success.
Both communities still voted heavily in favor of Biden, but his margin of support compared to 2016 fell nearly 5 percentage points in Providence and was down a whopping 19.5 percentage points in Central Falls.
The swing came as little surprise to Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, a Democrat, who highlighted a couple contributing factors he said swayed his constituency this election cycle.
First, Biden’s strong support for abortion rights did not resonate well in Central Falls, where voters are strongly religious, he said.
“The issue I heard most about was abortion,” Diossa said. “Trump said he was going to stick by and make sure he would do everything possible to stay consistent with abortion and pro-life issues.”
Secondly, Diossa said Trump’s relentless attempts to label Biden’s Democratic Party as socialist resonated with voters in a city where 66% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and many have either fled socialist regimes or are afraid of what’s happening in socialist countries.
“Republicans were very loud about painting the Democrats as socialists and that scared folks because of what they’re seeing in Venezuela, where droves of people are migrating to other countries for survival,” Diossa said.
In Providence, the shift in the Democratic margin was less sharp than in Central Falls, largely reflecting a 4-percentage-point boost for Trump rather than a decrease in support for Biden versus Hillary Clinton.
But in neighborhoods with high rates of Hispanic and Latino residents, such as the Olneyville community in Ward 15, Democratic support fell by more than 10 percentage points in five of seven polling places this year. At three of them, the decline exceeded 20 percentage points.
Rhode Island wasn’t alone. Trump also did well in other Hispanic communities across the country, underscored in Florida where he won more than half of the Cuban vote. That shift also helped Republicans make unexpected gains in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
“Democrats suffered a catastrophic erosion in Hispanic support,” David Wasserman, who covers House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote Wednesday.
Beyond Providence and Central Falls, only three other communities saw Democratic support decline in 2020 compared with four years earlier: Foster, Glocester and Woonsocket.
Otherwise, Biden performed well compared to Clinton, increasing support for the Democratic ticket from less than 1 percentage point in Hopkinton to just over 13 percentage points in Portsmouth. (Cranston’s support for Biden was also likely to grow Wednesday once election officials resolved a problem with early in-person voting, delaying the count of about 9,000 ballots.)
Statewide, 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said Democrats should feel good about the bounce back in support for the Democratic ticket, arguing that on balance the overarching trends show the GOP hasn’t made any significant inroads into the state’s larger communities.
“Trump did basically the same he did four years ago, and Biden did about 5 points better,” he said. “He’s back to the 60% number that Democrats usually see in Rhode Island.”
This year’s presidential race also continued a trend first seen in 2016 of Rhode Island and Massachusetts diverging in their level of support for Trump and his Democratic rival, unlike in prior recent election cycles.
Preliminary results show Biden defeated Trump by 20 percentage points in Rhode Island, an increase over Clinton’s 15.5-point win in the state four years ago. But Biden’s improvement over Clinton was even more pronounced in Massachusetts, where he buried Trump by 35 points, compared with Clinton’s 27-point advantage four years ago.
Trump is currently receiving just 31.4% of the vote in Massachusetts, the worst showing for a Republican nominee in the state since the 1992 and 1996 races that also featured third-party candidate Ross Perot; excluding those races, it was the worst since Barry Goldwater in 1964.
In Rhode Island, by contrast, Trump’s 38.9% share of the vote tied his showing in 2016 as the best for a Republican since 1988, when George H.W. Bush received 43.9%. In fact, no Republican has performed as much better in Rhode Island over Massachusetts as Trump since Richard Nixon, who won Rhode Island but lost Massachusetts in 1972.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook