After several days of campaigning, and a pair of conflicting local polls in Rhode Island, the race between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary seemed up in the air before Tuesday’s primary.
But Sanders was able to pull off a win, by a surprising 12 percentage points. Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender brings us this report from Sanders' Ocean State watch-party.
With less than 100 people, the crowd at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence, was much smaller than the 7,000 who showed up for Bernie Sanders rally over the weekend. But when he was announced the winner, they were just as enthusiastic.
Sanders’ Rhode Island Campaign Director Joe Caiazzo thanked the dozens of supporters, many of whom volunteered with the campaign, canvassing across the state, up through Tuesday’s primary.
"We knocked on doors, we talked to voters, we brought the senator’s populist message to the voters, which is the only way to do it."
There was little acknowledgement of the four other states Sanders lost Tuesday to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Instead, Caiazzo focused on the future.
"There’s a whole lot more states left on the map, and I’m sure that if we keep up the hard work, just like we did, we can be successful," Caiazzo told the crowd. "Thank you so much for coming."
South County resident Melissa Crawford canvassed and phone banked for Sanders in the weeks and months leading up to the primary.
"I feel so good. I don’t know why I was nervous, but just the regular feelings of nerves," Crawford said. "I’m just so happy Rhode Island showed its heart is in the right place."
Newport resident Hillary Stookey also led efforts for Sanders in Rhode Island. She says she’s already thinking about ways she can help in the upcoming primaries.
"We drove down to South Carolina, and we’ve been up to Bangor Maine," Stookey said. "Heck, I wouldn’t mind going across to California."
Stookey’s enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by Clinton’s growing lead over Sanders in the overall delegate count. And Sanders’ campaign director Joe Caiazzo touted the campaign’s bigger-than-expected victory in the Ocean State.
"I think this shows you that the voters of Rhode Island are no longer interested in politics as usual, no longer interested in the transactional politics of the past," Caiazzo said.
But University of Rhode Island political scientist Maureen Moakley says the win may not represent a major shift among Rhode Island’s Democrats. Moakley says strong support from independents helped propel Sanders in Rhode Island.
"The other thing is, given the dreary economic history that we’ve had, people are really disillusioned, and whether they choose Donald Trump or they choose Bernie Sanders, it’s a way for them to register their disappointment with the system," Moakley said.
Most of Rhode Island’s Democratic establishment, including Governor Gina Raimondo and the state’s Congressional delegation, is supporting Hillary Clinton. At the state’s official Clinton watch-party on primary night, state Democratic Party Chair and state Representative Joseph McNamara cheered the news that Clinton won delegate-rich Pennsylvania.
"Anytime your candidate doesn’t win on your home turf you’re disappointed," McNamera said. "But if I had my choice between winning Pennsylvania and winning Rhode Island, I’d say we’ll take Pennsylvania, thank you very much."
Overall in Tuesday’s five primaries, Clinton drew closer to the delegate count she needs to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.
"The fact of the matter is the presumptive nominee is Secretary Clinton," McNamera said. "They have more in common than they do differences. So now it’s the time for Democrats to unite behind a candidate."
Some political analysts expect Sanders to cede the nomination before the Democratic National Convention this summer, so Democrats can present a united front against Republicans, who may be headed for a contested convention.
URI political science professor Maureen Moakley says if Sanders does cede the nomination, he’ll likely be able to help dictate the party platform, pushing the progressive agenda he’s championed throughout his campaign.
"So in a sense, that was what he was always after; his campaign was always about ideas, and he can put them down in concrete form, and it matters," Moakley said. "And so to allow him to do that gives some satisfaction to all his supporters."
And those supporters in Rhode Island savored their victory Tuesday night, even as Sanders hopes of winning the nomination grew dimmer.