PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democrat Hillary Clinton easily won Rhode Island on Tuesday, as had always been expected. But Republican President-elect Donald Trump still outperformed previous GOP nominees in the state.
Rhode Island had always appeared to be a blue state where Trump could make some inroads, thanks to its significant blue-collar white population and an economy hit hard by globalization. While that wasn’t nearly enough to deliver Trump the state’s four electoral votes, he is on track to post the strongest Republican presidential showing in Rhode Island since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The final results in Rhode Island are not expected to be known until Thursday, when the R.I. Board of Elections finishes counting tens of thousands of mail ballots that are not yet included in the totals. But initial returns gave Clinton 54% and Trump just under 40%, a 14-point victory for the Democratic nominee.
“We still see Rhode Island being a strong Democratic state, a strong blue state,” Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said. “However, Clinton showed some weakness, which manifested itself across the whole country.” Fleming emphasized that with as many as 45,000 mail ballots uncounted in Rhode Island, the numbers could still shift significantly.
The preliminary results indicate Clinton ran far weaker in Rhode Island than Barack Obama did four years ago, when the president received 63% of the vote against Mitt Romney in a 27-point victory. Trump’s support Tuesday was more than four percentage point higher than Romney’s.
That was also borne out by the raw numbers: Clinton had 225,000 votes in Rhode Island as of Wednesday morning, 54,000 fewer than Obama received four years ago. Trump had 166,000 votes, about 8,000 more than Romney – suggesting that Trump’s relative strength in Rhode Island also had to do with weak turnout on the Democratic side.
It’s not the first sign of a big enthusiasm gap in Rhode Island between Trump and Clinton. In the state’s April presidential primary, Trump carried all but one community as Republican turnout soared; Clinton lost by double-digits to Bernie Sanders as Democratic turnout slumped.
Comparing the results in Rhode Island and Massachusetts also indicated Trump had unique appeal in the Ocean State.
In the eight presidential contests between 1984 and 2012, the Democratic nominee’s margins in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were always only 5 points apart at most. Not this time: Clinton received 61% of the vote in Massachusetts and carried the state by 27 points, right in line with how prior Democratic nominees did in the Bay State, even as she lagged Obama, John Kerry and her husband in Rhode Island.
But in Bristol County, Massachusetts – just across the border from Rhode Island – the results mirrored those in the Ocean State, with the Democratic nominee’s margin of victory crashing from 21 points for Obama in 2012 to just 9 points for Clinton on Tuesday. Clinton was up by just 23,000 votes in Bristol County as of midday Wednesday, not even half of the 49,000-vote edge Obama achieved.
Joe Caiazzo, Rhode Island state director for Sanders’ campaign in the primary and Clinton’s campaign in the general, noted that Massachusetts voters saw a lot of pro-Clinton TV ads that were aimed at reaching viewers in the swing state of New Hampshire who watch Boston stations, whereas Rhode Island voters saw none.
State Rep. Joe Trillo, Trump’s honorary statewide chairman, argued it was more than that. “It was the average middle-class person who felt like the country was slipping away from them, and that’s what he attracted himself to,” Trillo said Wednesday. “And they knew how important it was in this election to come out and vote.”
The election results in Rhode Island cities and towns also showed how Trump changed the map. Romney won only three of the state’s 39 communities in 2012, but on Tuesday Trump won 15, most of them by a double-digit margin.
Those included Coventry, the state’s seventh-largest community, where Trump received 53%; West Warwick, the 11th-largest community, where Trump received 48%; and Johnston, the 12th-largest community and usually a Democratic town, where Trump received 55% – just four years after Obama won it with 57%. Trump’s best performances were in Scituate (59%) and West Greenwich (58%).
Clinton performed best in Rhode Island’s urban core, winning 81% of the vote in Providence, 80% in Central Falls and 68% in Pawtucket. The preliminary results show Clinton received 59,000 votes in those three communities, compared with 65,000 for Obama.
But there was a major swing in the state’s second- and third-largest cities, Cranston and Warwick. Obama received more than 60% of the vote in both cities in 2012, but on Tuesday Clinton managed just 51% in Warwick and 48% in Cranston. In both cases, preliminary results show the shift was driven more by a sharp drop in Democratic votes than a surge in Republican ones.
There were also a handful of places where Clinton’s margin of victory was bigger than Obama’s, notably in the wealthy suburbs of Barrington and East Greenwich.
Trump received just 31% of the vote in Barrington, down sharply from the 40% that Romney received there four years earlier. Even more starkly, East Greenwich flipped from being one of just three Rhode Island towns that went for Romney in 2012 to delivering Clinton a double-digit win on Tuesday.
“The polling showed that Hillary Clinton does a lot better with college-educated people and Donald Trump does better with people that have less than a college education, and I think that shows in some of the suburban communities last night,” Fleming said.
Despite the Democratic drop-off and Republican improvement at the presidential level, there was little sign of it having an impact on state legislative races, where the GOP is in danger of losing a handful of the 18 seats that it current holds, out of 113 total.
Fleming said Trump’s appeal may be unique to him.
“He’s not a typical Republican, and I think that’s why he did better in some of these areas of Rhode Island – people who are frustrated responded to him,” he said. “It was nowhere near enough to win the state, but it brought him higher than Romney, higher than McCain. Just being a non-traditional Republican definitely helped him in Rhode Island.”Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and InstagramTim White and Jared Pliner contributed to this report.