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Of primary importance

Election 2014's first day of reckoning: facts, observations, and expert analysis
By PHILIP EIL  |  August 27, 2014

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It’s often said that instead of a major professional sports team, Rhode Island has politics. And now, in late August, we’re entering the playoffs.

Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent in a Democratic gubernatorial race that, according to a recent Providence Journal/WPRI poll, has General Treasurer Gina Raimondo leading Providence Mayor Angel Taveras by 5.4 percent and upstart newcomer Clay Pell by 6.6 percent. But, in delivering this news, ProJo politics reporter Kathy Gregg was quick to note the poll of 503 “likely Democratic voters” has a 4.38 percent margin of error, “which means any of the candidates could actually be up — or down — by that percentage.” As local polling guru Joe Fleming told Gregg, “The Democratic primary for governor still remains wide open.”

Meanwhile, the Providence mayoral race remains as jumbled and tense as ever. Independent Lorne Adrain and Democrat Brett Smiley have dropped out since the Phoenix’s meet-the-candidates cover story in June, and Smiley recently tossed his support behind fellow Democrat Jorge Elorza. Following the press conference where this alliance was announced, Republican candidate Dr. Dan Harrop told us that the shifting landscape affects him little. “This is all Democratic Game of Thrones and whoever emerges on primary day is fine with me,” he said. That same day, a waiting-in-the-wings Buddy Cianci — who is running as an Independent — quipped to reporters, “There are more dropouts in the mayor’s race than in the Providence schools.’’

In short, things are getting ever more interesting in the local political arena. And, in case you need a reminder of the stakes of RI’s 2014 elections, look at the most recent US employment rankings, which have the Ocean State crawling out of last place and ahead of Mississippi and Georgia to claim the third-worst unemployment rate in the nation. It’s bad news when this is good news.

With all of this in mind, we thought we’d feed you some facts, observations, and expert analysis as the first Election 2014 day of reckoning — Primary Day, September 9, which holds outsized importance in a state as lopsidedly Democratic as ours – draws nigh.

Let’s do this.

The Basics

The 2014 elections won’t mean much if you don’t — or can’t — vote. So let’s go through a pre-election checklist.

First, are you registered?

The deadline for the upcoming primaries has, alas, already passed; it was August 10, 30 days before Primary Day. But it’s not too late to register to vote in the general election on November 4 — the deadline for that is October 5. In order to register, as long as you meet the necessary requirements (you’re a legal US citizen, you live in RI, you’ll be 18 years old by the time you vote), you’ll want to head to elections.state.ri.us/voting/registration.php to print and fill out the proper form, then mail it to your local board of canvassers.

Once you’re registered, it’s time to prep for Election Day. This means heading to sos.ri.gov/vic to review your voter information and status, party affiliation, and polling place location. That site is also where you’ll find a list of your state and federal elected officials, better known as “the people you can complain to when you have a government-related problem.”

Then there’s the question of proper ID. Regardless of your feelings about voter ID laws, Rhode Island currently has one in place. So on voting day, you’ll need to bring a driver’s license or passport or educational ID or US military ID or government- or state-issued ID (a RIPTA bus pass, for example) or government-issued medical card. If you don’t have any of those, bring a utility bill, bank statement, or similar document to the Secretary of State’s office to obtain a special voting ID, or check upcoming stops on the SoS office’s ongoing voter-ID-dispensing tour at sos.ri.gov/elections/voterid/schedule. Little-known fact: you actually can vote in elections without an ID, but you’ll be given a provisional ballot to fill out and sign, and your signature will be compared to the one on file from your voter registration to determine whether the vote will be counted.

Finally, you’ll want to get informed about the issues and candidates involved in the upcoming election. This really is an endless process better known as “consuming journalism.” But, at the very least, you should download a preview version of the primary ballot (available at at the previously-mentioned SoS Voter Information Center site. The exact number of races varies depending on where you’re voting, but if you are, say, a Democrat in Providence, you’ll be asked to select candidates for US senate, US representative, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, general treasurer, state senator, state rep, mayor, and city council. In some categories, like with Democratic US Senator Jack Reed, who is running unopposed in the primary, only one name will appear on the ballot.

X-Ray (Campaign) Vision

What’s happening behind the scenes at each of these campaigns right now?

Rhode Island Deputy Secretary of State Paul Caranci — who previously served for 17 years on the North Providence City Council, among other elected and appointed positions — has a pretty good idea. Caranci isn’t running for office this year. But in June he published a book titled The Essential Guide to Running for Local Office: How to Plan, Organize, and Win Your Next Election, covering everything from “A Reason to Run for Public Office” (Chapter 1) to “Reacting to Election Results” (Chapter 15), with plenty of info (“Effective Campaigning on a Budget,” “Getting Press Coverage”) in between.

A sit-down conversation with Caranci is about as close as you’ll get to peering with x-ray goggles at the many campaigns happening around the state. So, last recent weekend, we did just that.

Here’s what he says is happening as the days, hours, and minutes tick down to Primary Day:

“You’re going to have different tiers of volunteers running those campaigns. The top tier is interested in policy, and those people are right now writing the final ads that are going to be on TV, radio, in the newspaper [and online]. And they’re gearing them toward issues that have already been identified through polling as the issues people are responding to. So, early on, you saw that Gina Raimondo was talking about family issues. And, of late, she’s switched to the beer commercial [touting her previous investment in Narragansett Beer, as a venture capitalist] [and] business-related issues, [how] she’s going to build jobs and stuff. That’s a shift in idea that wasn’t probably hashed out early in the campaign. It’s probably them reacting to polling data that they’re getting in, saying, ‘This is working, that’s not. People want to hear about that.’

“There’s a next layer of volunteers that’s organizing the ‘grunts’: the people that are going to be out in the field doing the work. And those people are busy organizing leaflet drops that are going to hold the message that the candidate wants to get out. They’re going to be organizing last-minute rallies and doing all the things that are visible in the campaign and meant to sway voters, one way or another, by getting the message out there.

“And then there’s another tier of volunteers that’s working on what’s going to happen on Election Day. And those are the people that are focused on . . . identifying the vote, how they’re going to get [voters] out that day, getting the volunteers that are going to make the calls. In the big campaigns, those are unions and organizations that are doing it; in the little campaigns for council and school committee, it’s family or friends and a few people [who] just volunteered because they like you.

“[Meanwhile,] fundraising continues, because you can spend money right until the last day. Maybe [it’s] not on television and radio, because those ads had to be placed. But you’re probably in debt and need to raise the money that’s going to be used to pay off a lot of the debt you have. [And] you’re hoping you’re going to win and your campaign’s going to go on, so you need money for the general election. That’s usually organized by the big boys. The candidate, himself, will be on the phone, trying to raise money, [and] the campaign consultants will be working that out too and trying to organize fundraisers.”

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