Clinton's Blue-Collar Support Wavering in R.I. A largely blue-collar state, Rhode Island should arguably be an easy win for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the upcoming March 4 primary. But Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has made inroads into Clinton's working-class constituency there, as he has in the much-bigger delegate prize of Ohio.
NPR logo Clinton's Blue-Collar Support Wavering in R.I.

Clinton's Blue-Collar Support Wavering in R.I.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state. Darren McCollester/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas and Vermont are holding their primaries on March 4, in a make-or-break day for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Read about what's at stake in these states and contests.

Pawtucket, R.I., arguably should be Clinton country.

As in much of Rhode Island, Pawtucket's residents are primarily blue-collar, union workers: mechanics, waitresses and teachers, who live in triple-decker homes or tidy bungalows that sit just a few feet apart.

Although the city of 70,000 has seen its share of old factories converted into loft apartments, the downtown's main attraction is a defunct cotton mill that dates back to the late 1700s and now doubles as a museum.

This is the type of town with the kind of voters who have supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in past primaries: the white working-class who make less than $50,000 a year.

But a recent local Brown University poll shows that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is making inroads in the state, the same week that he is also leading in nationwide polls for the first time. This is despite the fact that Obama has not actually visited Rhode Island, one of four states that will hold primaries on March 4. His campaign announced that he plans to stop in the state on Saturday.

Six weeks ago, Clinton had a 16-point lead over Obama in Rhode Island. Now, that margin has dwindled to just 8 points.

Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are making campaign stops in the state. They hope to solidify her advantage there. A victory in Rhode Island alone won't save Clinton's campaign: It offers just 21 delegates. But it could help if she only narrowly wins the larger March 4 primary states of Ohio and Texas, which have 141 and 193 Democratic delegates at stake, respectively.

On a recent chilly Sunday morning, Obama supporters canvassed in Pawtucket to try to close the gap between the two candidates even further. Toni Wynkoop, 38, and her two daughters were among the volunteers. Wynkoop said she felt inspired by Obama's speeches, as well as his health care plan.

One of her first stops was the first-floor apartment of 23-year-old waitress Megan Wagner, who has two young children and who works at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. Originally, Wagner supported Clinton because she wanted to vote a woman into the White House. Now, she finds herself leaning toward Obama as she examines the two candidates' health care plans. (Clinton's plan would require that everyone have insurance, paid for by a web of individual, government and employer money, while Obama's plan requires only children to get health care and then offers subsidies and tax credits for adults who cannot afford the plans).

"When I heard about national coverage, I thought that was what Hillary was going to be doing," Wagner said. "But if she is going to garnish wages, or doing whatever she has to do to cover that, whereas Obama is taking it and you are paying your own pay, you're probably better off."

A few doors down, 82-year-old registered Democrat Claire Lallier cautiously opened her door to the canvassers. She has not yet committed to either candidate, but she said she preferred Clinton.

"I think she's a real smart lady. She's a very good speaker, that's what I like about her," she said.

According to Brown University political scientist Darrell West, this split among blue-collar voters is happening across Rhode Island.

"[Obama] is starting to make inroads into her core constituencies," West said.

"I expect Rhode Island to be very competitive, certainly when you judge from the advertising," West said. "Clinton still has an edge, but Obama has the momentum on his side."

Although Obama is outspending Clinton three-to-one in advertising, Clinton has put in the face time.

She stopped in Rhode Island on Sunday for a roundtable on health care and a rally, where she talked about the economic issues important to Rhode Islanders: home foreclosures, health care and jobs moving overseas.

In her determination to hold onto the state's blue-collar voters, Clinton even risked alienating a big booster and Democratic superdelegate, the mayor of Providence, David Cicciline. The Clinton campaign asked him not to attend any of her three Rhode Island events, including a private fundraiser, because Cicciline is involved in an ongoing contract dispute with the local firefighters' union.

Union members saw it as a blatant, but ultimately effective gesture. "We think she's a good judge of character," said Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters' local 799. "It was a tough decision she had to make. She stood with the firefighters."

After the Clinton rally, several men wearing T-shirts and carrying printed signs bearing the names of their unions stood in one corner of the gymnasium. Scott Duhamel, the business representative for the local painters union, said his union's roughly 2,000 members are supporting Clinton — for now.

"We're supporting the senator for a number of reasons, largely economical," Duhamel said. "Two of the things that concern us the most are health care and the economy. We think she is probably the most electable. Although, I will tell you, quite clearly, we'll be there for whoever is the last Democrat standing."

What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

To view a photo gallery of the presidential candidates leading up to the March 4 primaries. hide caption

toggle caption

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Dave Einsel/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

Dave Einsel/Getty Images

Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul


The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.