PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s been 36 years since a Republican has won Rhode Island in a presidential election, highlighting how difficult it’s become for the GOP to make gains in a state dominated by Democrats.
And while there’s little evidence the Democratic streak will end this year, that doesn’t mean the electorate has been static. A Target 12 review of nearly four decades of presidential voting records shows how some cities and towns have shifted politically over the years, while others look almost exactly the same.
1984: The last Republican victory
President Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to win a majority of votes in Rhode Island, narrowly defeating Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984. The win represented some redemption for the former California governor and movie star, as Rhode Island had been one of only six states to vote for President Jimmy Carter four years earlier.
Despite winning 33 of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns in 1984, however, Reagan still only won 52% of the vote statewide, underscoring the outsized influence of Democrats in Rhode Island’s more densely populated communities (Central Falls, East Providence, Johnston, North Providence, Pawtucket and Providence).
1988: Reagan coalition splits up
In 1988, Rhode Island swung back behind the Democratic Party, joining only nine other states and Washington D.C. in supporting Michael Dukakis. The Massachusetts Democrat lost the election to Republican George H.W. Bush, but Dukakis’ win locally marked the first of eight consecutive presidential elections to go in favor of the Democratic nominee in Rhode Island.
As for Bush, it wouldn’t be until 2016 when another Republican — Donald Trump — won as many cities and towns in Rhode Island. And 1988 was the last time several municipalities voted Republican, including Barrington, Charlestown, Little Compton, Middletown and North Kingstown.
1992: Three-way race scrambles math
Bush served only one term in the White House, losing in 1992 to Bill Clinton. The Arkansas Democrat earned nearly 50% of the vote in Rhode Island, beating both Bush and the independent candidate, Ross Perot, who had one of the best performances of any independent candidate in U.S. history. (Perot later founded the Reform Party and ran again in 1996, but drew less support.)
All but two Rhode Island communities — Scituate and East Greenwich — voted for Clinton.
1996: Era of Dem dominance begins
President Clinton’s popularity only grew in Rhode Island once he was in the White House, as nearly 60% of the state’s voters supported him over Republican challenger Bob Dole in 1996. Clinton won every city and town except East Greenwich, where Dole eked out a narrow win with 44% of the vote.
This was also the only election between 1984 and 2016 where Scituate voted for a Democratic candidate. Barack Obama was the only other candidate to win such widespread support in Rhode Island during that time period.
2000: A contested U.S. election
The drama that played out in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was nowhere to be seen in Rhode Island. The Tennessee Democrat beat Bush locally with a whopping 61% of the vote. Bush of course went on to win the presidency despite widespread controversy in Florida, where the results were challenged and ultimately decided by the courts.
In Rhode Island, Bush won Republican strongholds — East Greenwich and Scituate — but nowhere else.
2004: Little, but consistent GOP support
Rhode Islanders’ support for President Bush had grown slightly by 2004, when he earned nearly 39% of the vote compared to 32% four years earlier. Bush still lost the state to the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts, who carried nearly 60% of the electorate.
But the Republican president went on to win a second term in the White House. And in addition to winning East Greenwich and Scituate for a second time, Bush also picked up West Greenwich in 2004.
2008: A swing to the left
Barack Obama nearly swept Rhode Island in 2008 when he beat Republican John McCain and became the nation’s first-ever Black president. Obama earned 63.1% of the statewide vote and even won East Greenwich, which had voted for a Republican in every presidential election since at least 1984. (East Greenwich would return to form four years later, going Republican again in 2012.)
In the only other statewide contest that year, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed beat Republican challenger Robert Tingle with 73% of the vote. Reed won every Rhode Island community, including Scituate, the one community Obama lost.
2012: Obama maintains strong support
President Obama’s popularity in Rhode Island carried over into the 2012 election, as he nearly mirrored his performance in the state four years earlier. The Illinois Democrat beat Republican Mitt Romney with 63% of the vote.
Romney, who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007, earned just 35% of the vote, marking the sixth consecutive time the Republican nominee failed to reach 40% in Rhode Island. Romney did slightly better than McCain at the municipal level, though, flipping both East Greenwich and West Greenwich back to the GOP.
2016: An east-west divide
Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Rhode Island in 2016, receiving 54% of the vote to his 39%. But Trump won the most cities and towns — 14 — of any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and he was successful in flipping some Democratic strongholds. Burrillville, Coventry, Foster, Smithfield and Richmond all voted Republican for the first time since Reagan’s re-election.
The most talked-about shift was in Johnston, where 55% of voters supported Trump over Clinton. The last time Johnston had voted Republican in a presidential election was 1972, when 52% of voters supported the incumbent Richard Nixon over Democratic challenger George McGovern. (Nixon also won statewide.)