Rhode Island State Survey Commentary, February 2000

Commentary on Brown University Survey, February, 2000 (posted February 23, 2000)

The February, 2000 Brown University survey shows some startling turnarounds in political fortunes and several warning signs on the horizon. Below, I summarize the most important results of the poll and discuss their political significance. Actual survey results can be found in the accompanying press release posted on www.InsidePolitics.org.

Presidential campaign--John McCain should do very well in the upcoming Yankee primary on March 7 featuring elections in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont. In our RI survey, McCain leads both Gore and Bradley, while Bush trails each of the Democratic contenders. McCain's maverick streak plays well with independents in New England. While Bush continues to run well among Republicans, McCain is drawing major support from Independents and cross-over Democrats. New England has three factors that will help McCain: a strong tradition of political independence, a relatively weak religious right, and voters that are more moderate than other regions around the country. McCain should be able to follow-up his victories in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Arizona with success in the Yankee primary.

U.S. Senate race--Newly-appointed Senator Lincoln Chafee has emerged as the clear frontrunner in the 2000 election. In September, Chafee was in a dead-heat with Democratic contenders Robert Weygand and Richard Licht, and possible independent candidate Arlene Violet. Now, on the strength of favorable press coverage surrounding the unexpected death of his father, John Chafee, Lincoln Chafee's appointment to the Senate, and voter trust and confidence in the Chafee lineage, the new Senator has jumped to a 15 percentage point lead. Much of this gain has come at the expense of Violet. While she was running in the mid-20s in September, her numbers in the Weygand match-up have dropped to 15 percent, an overall decline of 9 percentage points.

Democratic Senate nomination--Congressman Weygand has opened a major lead of 31 percentage points over Richard Licht (46 to 15 percent). This puts Weygand in the driver's seat for the nomination, regardless of who wins the official party endorsement. If the Democratic party endorses Licht as expected, look for Weygand to run against entrenched interests within his own party and play to political independents.

Racial tension in Rhode Island--The shooting death of Cornell Young, Jr. has unleashed strong reactions about racial relations within the Ocean State. In our survey, 43 percent believe racial tension is a major problem in the state. In addition, 35 percent think law enforcement officers within Rhode Island treat minorities worse than whites. Non-whites are more likely to hold this view. Although only 32 percent of whites feel law enforcement officers treat minorities worse, 71 percent of non-whites think that. The results show the dramatic racial gulf that exists in Rhode Island between whites and non-whites.

Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse--Whitehouse has a 48 percent positive job performance rating, but there are significant differences between whites and non-whites in how voters feel about him. Whereas 52 percent of whites say he is doing an excellent or good job, only 37 percent of non-whites feel that way. Half of non-whites rate his job performance as only fair or poor.

Mayor Buddy Cianci--Mayor Cianci continues to be rated as having the best job performance in the state, with 70 percent of voters claiming he is doing an excellent or good job. Cianci still is the Teflon Mayor, with little sign in the eyes of voters that Operation Plunder Dome and guilty pleas within his administration are tarnishing his public image. Look for those numbers to drop fast, however, if the federal probe reaches higher and higher into the Cianci Administration.

Consumer Confidence in the Economy--For the third consecutive time in the last year, our Index of Consumer Confidence has dropped. In all, Rhode Island consumers are 8 percent less optimistic about the economy than at the beginning of 1999. This is a worrisome trend because consumer purchases constitute two-thirds of Gross Domestic Product. If consumers become more pessimistic, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can turn the actual economy more negative. Combined with the four interest rate increases of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, this index is signaling caution ahead in terms of the state economy.

Darrell M. West