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What's the Deal with Rhode Island Voters?


The smallest state in the union gets a big role next week. Rhode Island's 32 delegates are up for grabs on March 4th. Now, normally, Rhode Island, a land I love, I'm afraid to say would normally be just kind of a political blip. But this year, every delegate matters to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Darrell West is the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at my alma mater, Brown University.

Hi, Darrell.

Mr. DARRELL WEST (Director, Taubman Center for Public Policy, Brown University): Good morning. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well.

For people who don't know a lot about Rhode Island, the history is, shall we say, colorful. Roger Williams broke off or he was banished from Plymouth because of his extreme views on supporting freedom of speech, assembly and religion. He insisted the land must be purchased from the Indians rather than just taken from them. And you say that sort of independent spirit is still alive in Rhode Island; that it is, quote, "Small but feisty."

How do you think that's going to translate at the polls next Tuesday?

Mr. WEST: It's a state that often has produced surprising results. I mean, Rhode Island should be Clinton territory because it's a state that has a lot of women, senior citizens and working-class voters who are exactly the types of people in other states who have supported Hillary Clinton. But the Obama campaign has been outspending Hillary Clinton by 3-to-1 in Rhode Island in terms of advertising. So if there is any place where there might be a surprise, it could be Rhode Island.

STEWART: Now, Rhode Island has a higher percentage of people with bachelor's degrees and a more than - a higher median income, household income, than the nation as a whole. Has that been reflected in the candidates that the voters have chosen in the past for national or even local office?

Mr. WEST: Rhode Islanders tend to be pretty independent-minded. I mean, the reputation of the state is that it's a Democratic bastion. But half of the electorate actually identifies itself as independent. And we have open primaries so those independents can go either into the Democratic or Republican primaries. Given the fact that the GOP contest is pretty much settled, most of those independents are going to flood into the Democratic primary. And in other states, Obama has done better the larger the independent vote is in a particular state.

STEWART: Now, Texas and Ohio, they have more than three times the number of delegates up for grabs in Rhode Island, yet Obama have been pouring money into ads in Rhode Island. Hillary Clinton has Bill and Chelsea stumping there. Why do you think Rhode Island is a strategic must for both of them?

Mr. WEST: It's such a close race. I mean, Obama has about a 100-delegate lead over Clinton right now. But, you know, this is a race that could come down to individual delegates. Rhode Island just has 32 delegates. But in a very tight race, every delegate matters. And also on election night on March 4th, there are going to be four states balloting, and if Obama happens to lose Ohio and Texas, he still wants to be able to say that he won Vermont where he now is leading and if he can pull off an upset in Rhode Island then he can say he went two for four.

STEWART: We're speaking to Darrell West. He's the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

And I wonder if the case of Rhode Island senator, Republican Lincoln Chafee, who was not re-elected in 2006 - he lost to a Democrat - is that instructive for Tuesday's primary or general election?

Mr. WEST: Chafee has come out and endorsed Obama as has Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Today, Ted Kennedy is coming to the state. But in general, those types of endorsements, I think, are overrated. I mean, we saw the prominent example of the Kennedys endorsing Obama in Massachusetts, but Hillary Clinton won that state by a double-digit margin.

STEWART: Now, only 11 percent of the state electorate is registered Republican. Does that sound right?

Mr. WEST: Yes.

STEWART: Did the candidates, the GOP candidates, have they even been present there?

Mr. WEST: In the last two weeks, we have had visits both from McCain and Huckabee, but the GOP campaign is low-key, no phone calls, no television ads. All of the intensity and all of the excitement is really on the Democratic side just because that race is still undecided. It's very close and people feel their vote actually matters.

STEWART: But what about all these independents you told us about, almost half of the state electorate? Could they possibly decide, you know what, I'm liking McCain.

Mr. WEST: They could. And there certainly will be some independents who will go into the GOP primary. But independents tend to go for the exciting race. And that clearly, in this state, is on the Democratic side just because there's been so much money spent there and there's been a lot of voter mobilization. We have students going door-to-door for various candidates.

So this campaign is at a fever pitch. Rhode Island often has been an off-Broadway venue. It doesn't really attract a lot of attention. But right now, for the next five days, Rhode Island is in the middle of this national story.

STEWART: We saw in Texas and - we saw in Texas and Ohio so much discussion about health care and about NAFTA. What is the big campaign issue in Rhode Island?

Mr. WEST: The two big issues here still remain Iraq and the economy. I mean, there has been some attention to NAFTA and health care but not nearly to the extent that you've seen in Texas and Ohio. Ohio, in particular, is a state with a lot of manufacturing jobs. They've been hurt by this trading agreement so both candidates have made a major push on that issue. That issue, though, hasn't really attracted too much attention in New England.

STEWART: Now, I know you worked in a poll of Rhode Island voters, likely Rhode Island voters, and it showed that Clinton was ahead of Obama - 36 percent to 28 percent - but you don't think that Hillary Clinton necessarily has a lock.

Mr. WEST: I don't think it's a lock because we've done a survey three or four months ago that showed her with a 19 percentage point lead so her margin had dropped by half. And of course, Obama now has won 11 states in a row, has a lot of momentum. There's a lot of excitement in his campaign. He's outspending Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island. So she shouldn't assume she's necessarily going to win. I mean, this state still is very competitive.

STEWART: And could be full of surprises. Why I love Rhode Island.

Darrell West is the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. Nice to speak with you.

Mr. WEST: Thank you very much.


Hey, stay with us. Next on the BPP, our regular movie guide. Daniel Holloway. He's here with a round-up of what you should see this weekend at the movie theater.

STEWART: And I drink your milkshake. How lines from movies become iconic?

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. I drink to that.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to figure out if that's an insult or if that's like a positive thing? Am I supposed to be happy drinking my milkshake or am I supposed to be very upset?

STEWART: I don't think you're supposed to be happy about that, Rachel.



MARTIN: See the movie. Come back.

This is the BPP from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.