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Scott MacKay Commentary: How To Make RI Relevant In Presidential Primary Politics

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The presidential primary campaign is in high gear, but Rhode Island gets scant attention from White House hopefuls. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay...

The presidential primary campaign is in high gear, but Rhode Island gets scant attention from White House hopefuls. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has some ideas about how we can change this.

The 2016 presidential nominating sweepstakes has dominated the news since January, but Rhode Island has been a wallflower at this dance.

We’ve seen the candidates slogging through the snows of New Hampshire, the farms of Iowa and even the college campuses  of Massachusetts. Yet the Ocean State has been bypassed by candidates and cameras.

Without going deeply into the Republican debate over body parts, a reality is that in presidential voting, after the opening states, size does matter.

Our tiny sliver of southeastern New England has few delegates to deliver to candidates. That will always be the case, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

Small states, however, can be crucial to the presidential nominating campaign if they vote early. This is why Iowa and New Hampshire matter. With their overwhelmingly white populations, both states demographically look more like mid-twentieth century America than our diverse country of the twenty-first.

Yet tradition, the  acquiescence of the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties and in New Hampshire, state law, have enshrined these two states as the kickoff contests. Nothing Rhode Island lawmakers can do will change that.

That doesn’t mean that the Ocean State can’t do more to draw the presidential spotlight. One of our pitfalls has been that over the years, the Rhode Island primary date has ping-ponged around  the table. Since the 1970s, the state’s primary has been held as early as March and as late as June. This year we vote on April 26th. This has been an unpredictable campaign, but both the Republican and Democratic contests are probably going to be over by then.

Our calendar zig-zags haven’t always translated into obscurity. In 2008, Rhode Island’s March primary drew huge interest, especially on the Democratic side, where a vigorous joust between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama brought candidate and surrogate visits galore, as well as a record voter turnout of about 200,000. But that was the exception to the we- don’t- matter rule.

So how do we get presidential candidates to take Rhode Island seriously? First, says Rhode Island native Jennifer Duffy of Washington, D.C.’s nonpartisan Cook Political Report, is to move the date back to March, holding our primary on the same date as our New England neighbors of Vermont and Massachusetts. ``Earlier is better, ‘’ says Duffy, especially with regard to Massachusetts.

Candidates who hold rallies in Boston or Worcester could easily slip into Providence, Pawtucket or Warwick for events. Both states are as blue as Narragansett Bay on a summer day, so candidates could test messages before similar electorates.

A more far-reaching solution is suggested by political scientist Darrell West, formerly of Brown University and currently at Brookings, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He says there should be a New England primary so that states other than New Hampshire become relevant. The current system means that none of the other five states get much attention, making it difficult to get candidates to focus on New England issues.

A New England-wide, sans New Hampshire, primary would allow the states to cluster their efforts and get taken more seriously by candidates.

This is particularly the case in the 21st Century. Turn the clock back to 1960, and the New England states did not sing from the same presidential hymnal. That year, the three northern, rural, Protestant states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire all went for Republican Richard Nixon. The three southern states, urban, industrial and Roman Catholic Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island all supported Democrat John F. Kennedy. (RI was Kennedy's best state in percentage of vote terms).

That’s changed. Now all six New England states regularly vote Democratic in presidential elections. Since 1992, every state in the region has supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election save New Hampshire in 2000, when George W. Bush won a narrow victory over Al Gore.

What’s needed is to get the secretaries of state in the five New England states outside New Hampshire together to agree on a common primary date. That would keep Rhode Island from being the Rodney Dangerfield of presidential politics, and give us some respect.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our On Politics Blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: How To Make RI Relevant In Presidential Primary Politics
Scott MacKay Commentary: How To Make RI Relevant In Presidential Primary Politics