Rhode Island's Primary Results Show Us How Independents Are Shaping the 2016 Election

Peter Schnoll / CC-BY-2.0

Peter Schnoll / CC-BY-2.0

Rhode Island’s primary results “show just how tough and unpredictable the battle for the presidency will be this year, all the way to the White House,” Guardian journalist Suzanne McGee writes.

The key factor is the rising anger of middle-class or formerly middle-class Americans, an experience given voice by the author and critic Neal Gabler in a recent essay for The Atlantic, in which he confesses that he is one of many Americans suffering from “financial impotence,” or the inability to find even $400 to cover an emergency. One study suggests 47 percent of Americans find themselves in this plight, and “millions of Americans are succumbing to a form of economic despair, a factor that has been cited as one of the contributing factors in sending the US suicide rate to a 30-year high,” McGee says.

Now, of “the five states in the [recent] Acela primary,” McGee continues, “Rhode Island is the only one that Bernie Sanders won, hands down, while Donald Trump’s margin of victory here was the biggest of his campaign so far. There are two important, and related, messages to draw from this. The first is the importance of voter turnout, and independent voters, in the process. The second, the magnitude of the economic anger, and its role in getting those independent voters to the polls to voter for populist or outsider candidates, such as Sanders or Trump.”

Consider this:

Even though the state opened only about a third of the usual number of polling locations – I had to walk a mile and a half each way to reach mine – and the primary was the first time that a new voter ID law was in place, requiring voters to show an approved form of photo ID in order to cast a ballot, Rhode Island’s voter turnout was very, very high – around 25%. In 2008, 27,237 Republicans voted statewide, a figure that fell to 14,564 in 2012, and soared to 61,703 this year, a 118% increase. In a solidly Democratic state, 125,846 cast their ballots for either Sanders or Clinton.

Notably, Rhode Island had a “semi-open” primary, unlike the other four states that voted on Tuesday. As an independent (or in Rhode Island parlance, unaffiliated) voter, as 42% of Americans now describe themselves, I was able to vote in a primary election for the first time in my life. “And how will you be voting today?” the cheery election worker asked me, clutching a yellow (Republican) batch of papers in one hand and a blue (Democratic) sheaf in her other, sounding oddly as if she were offering me the choice between two dinner entrées. …

To win, both Sanders and Trump had to succeed in motivating those independent voters to channel their anger and do more than yell “I’m not going to take it any more.” [They had to] get [them] to the polls and [have them] cast their ballots in favor of change. They accomplished that.

The reasons are rooted deeply in what has happened in Rhode Island, where [Gina] Raimondo, in her second year as governor, is struggling to lure middle-class jobs (and tax revenue) to the state. Manufacturing has vanished from the state; Rhode Island lost 8% of its jobs during the recession, twice as many as its neighbor to the north, Massachusetts. Taxes are high, and so is the level of political cronyism. Providence’s business leaders even urge the city to consider bankruptcy, while the mayor fights frantically to avoid it. To those who lost their manufacturing jobs, the existence of a growing, vibrant arts and creative scene, full of people lured here by the low cost of living, doesn’t make up for the lack of a living wage. Rhode Island is a microcosm of the kind of economic trauma that too many American families struggle with nationwide.

Going forward, the test will be whether that economic anger will continue to power both candidates. If Sanders can’t beat Clinton to the nomination, will the combined fury of millions of disaffected independent voters or alienated Democrats, unwilling to sign up for what they see as “more of the same” incremental changes in economic policy, be enough to send Trump to the White House?

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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