Ocean State voters will go to the polls today to choose a successor to Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 and determine the outcome of one of the most unconventional political races in the country this year.
Even before the Democratic nominee for governor told the president of the United States and leader of his party to "shove it" last Monday, this year's gubernatorial race had departed from the standard narrative of liberal Democrat versus conservative Republican and the national political trends driving this election cycle.
Crossing party lines
The contest is "possibly the strangest race I've ever seen," said M. Charles Bakst '66, who covered politics for the Providence Journal for almost four decades. "You have a guy who was a Republican who gets more support from Democrats," he said of Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14, an independent candidate in the race.
Chafee, a former mayor of Warwick and U.S. senator, left the Republican Party after losing his Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006. Since then, he has enthusiastically endorsed gay marriage and proposed to levy a 1 percent sales tax on currently exempt goods if elected — highly unpopular positions with his former party.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Frank Caprio is "a Democratic nominee who is really in many ways seen as a Republican," Bakst said.
The Republican National Committee has alleged that Caprio courted its support in February, and Republican candidate John Robitaille has claimed that Caprio, through an intermediary, asked him to withdraw from the race. Caprio has denied both allegations of seeking Republican support.
In August, a Rasmussen poll found that 39 percent of Rhode Islanders consider Chafee liberal, compared to 29 percent who applied the same label to Caprio. More respondents considered Caprio conservative than they did Chafee.
The Republican candidate, John Robitaille, is moderately conservative. He champions the twin Republican pillars of lower taxes and lower spending. But he opposes proposed economic projects that he considers environmentally unfriendly and writes of government welfare programs on his campaign website, "I believe we should strengthen the safety net."
Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that this year's gubernatorial hopefuls are "closer to each other than they are to other candidates in the same parties elsewhere."
"Caprio is a conservative Democrat who is probably closest to Robitaille, and Chafee and (Moderate Party candidate Ken) Block are similar to moderate Democrats in other states. We do not have any ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal candidates," she wrote.
Aside from ideology, the distinguishing factors in the race are "individual personality, name recognition, perception of character, political family legacies or ties to other politicians," Schiller wrote.
The other guy
The comparatively small ideological gap between these three may explain the poor showing of the fourth candidate, Moderate Party founder Ken Block.
Separate polls released last week show Block with 2 and 4 percent support, respectively, despite what should be a favorable political climate for third parties. Driven in part by a slow economic recovery and the furor over health care reform, an anti-incumbent mood has taken hold of voters across the country. The rise of the right-wing Tea Party has demonstrated the appeal for some voters of a political movement that does not embrace either major party.
In Washington, the Democratic majority is expected to narrow in the Senate and disappear in the House.
In Rhode Island, which has long had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, voters seem to follow the national trend. A February poll by the Taubman Center for Public Policy found that more than two-thirds of Rhode Islanders thought the state was heading in the wrong direction, while less than 13 percent had a "great deal" or a "good amount" of confidence in elected state officials' ability to steer it in the right direction.
But Block — a political newcomer who told The Herald he considers himself a "pragmatist" — does not appear to have made significant inroads against Chafee or Caprio, who have both held multiple elected positions in the state, or Robitaille, who was an adviser to Carcieri before running to replace him.
While the crowded, relatively moderate field makes it more difficult for the Moderate Party candidate to find an electoral niche, Bakst cited a more practical obstacle to Block's candidacy.
"He doesn't have the organization or the money," Bakst, who is a former Herald editor-in-chief, said of Block. "You've got to spend a real good amount of money when you don't have a traditional organization just to get in the game."
According to both Bakst and Schiller, Block will siphon off more votes from Chafee than from the other candidates.
‘A legitimate three-way race'
Whether Block plays the roll of spoiler or not, the other three candidates all have a legitimate shot at capturing governor's mansion today.
Throughout the race, polls have shown Caprio and Chafee trading the lead, with Robitaille consistently relegated to third place.
But Caprio may have shifted the dynamic of the race last Monday, when he told a radio station President Barack Obama could "take his endorsement and really shove it."
The comment, directed at the leader of Caprio's own party on the day he swung through Rhode Island on a fundraising trip, sent shockwaves through the state and made headlines in the national press a week before election day.
Obama, who was endorsed by Chafee early in his presidential bid, declined to endorse Caprio as a courtesy to the independent candidate.
Though Caprio initially defended his comments, a poll last week found that the comment made fives times as many Rhode Islanders less likely to vote for Caprio than more likely to vote for him, and over the weekend Caprio said he regrets the phrasing of the statement.
The same poll found that Robitaille — who was quick to condemn the "shove it" comment — had overtaken Caprio for second place, seven points behind Chafee. Caprio was 10 points back from the frontrunner.
But "it's a legitimate three-way race," Bakst said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Caprio finished first."