PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Support for the Democratic presidential ticket fell in all but six Rhode Island cities and towns between the 2012 and 2016 elections, a shift that political observers say they’re watching closely in 2020.
While Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 15.5 percentage points in Rhode Island, her support was notably less than Barack Obama in his 2012 re-election race. Obama’s margin of victory exceeded Clinton’s in every community except Barrington, East Greenwich, Little Compton, Newport, North Kingstown and Portsmouth, according to a Target 12 analysis of voting records.
Looked at another way, Democratic support declined – either moving to the Republican Party or a third-party candidate – in 33 of the state’s 39 cities and towns between 2012 and 2016.
12 News political analyst Joe Fleming, a longtime Rhode Island pollster, said he thinks the shift was more about Clinton than it was about Trump.
“A lot of people said Donald Trump did a lot better in Rhode Island than traditional Republicans, but really he only did about 4% better than the two presidential elections before,” Fleming said. “It was Hillary Clinton that went down.”
Indeed, while Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney 63% to 35% in 2012 in Rhode Island, Clinton defeated Trump 54% to 39% in 2016.
The biggest shift between those two races took place in Burrillville, where support for the Democratic nominee fell 30.7 percentage points, the largest swing of any city or town. But the community that caught the most attention was Johnston, where the margin shifted nearly 30 points, as nearly 55% of town voters supported Trump just four years after 57.2% of them supported Obama.
Johnston has long been considered a Democratic stronghold in Rhode Island, supporting the party in every prior presidential election since 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon won the state. But the town has trended to the GOP in recent years, supporting Trump in 2016 and voting for Republican Allan Fung over Democrat Gina Raimondo in both of the last two gubernatorial elections.
While some believe the recent trend could signal Johnston has become more conservative, others suggest Johnston residents may just be drawn to Trump’s personality and politics more than anything else. The dynamic was detailed in the recent book “Trump’s Democrats,” which focused partly on Johnston.
“Long before Trump ran the slogan America First, for example, Johnstonians were preaching Johnston First,” authors Stephanie Muravchik and Jon Shields recently told The Boston Globe.
Fleming said the 2020 election should help show whether Johnston is truly becoming more conservative, or if voters might again support a more moderate Democrat like Joe Biden.
If not, 2020 would show Johnston is “becoming more conservative and moving away from the progressive-type Democrat – wanting to go with a more moderate-to-conservative Republican,” Fleming added.
Elsewhere, Fleming is looking to see if Republicans can make any inroads into Rhode Island’s larger communities. Trump won the most towns – 14 out of 39 – since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but it didn’t make much of a difference overall because most of them were smaller communities.
A 2016 political map of how Rhode Island cities and towns voted makes it appear like the state is split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans. While that is true geographically, the majority of Rhode Islanders live on the eastern side of the state – mostly in the greater Providence area — which has voted solidly Democratic for more than two decades.
In Providence alone — where upward of 60,000 people usually vote in presidential election years — more than 80% of the electorate supported the Democrat in 2016, 2012 and 2008.
“It’s kind of hard to make that number up elsewhere in the state, especially if you’re only winning the smaller communities,” Fleming said.
If Republicans start picking up more votes in larger communities, however, that could signal a more significant ideological shift in the statewide electorate.
“I want to see if Republicans can make gains in Cranston and Warwick, West Warwick,” Fleming said. “Maybe not win, but make the race a little bit tighter.”