PROVIDENCE – If you want to know how unsettled the Democratic field for president is, look no further than the Ocean State.
No one from Rhode Island’s four-member congressional delegation has endorsed a candidate in the race, making the state one of the few in the country where no member of Congress has formally backed one of the Democrats vying for the nomination or, in the case of some red states, isn’t supporting President Trump for re-election.
And although US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and US Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline all have more than two months before Rhode Island voters head to the polls for the Democratic primary on April 28, longtime political observers say the delegation’s indecisiveness is emblematic of the challenge establishment Democrats across the country are facing as they wait for the field to shrink.
“I think a lot of politicians in Rhode Island feel they have time to wait until dust has settled because the primary is so late and there is no clear frontrunner,” said Joe Fleming, a veteran political pollster in Rhode Island. “Anybody who tells you they know who's going to be the nominee is lying to you.”
It’s unclear if any member of the delegation intends to endorse a candidate before the primary, and spokespeople for all four of them said Monday they don’t have a timeline for selecting a candidate.
“Before November,” Richard Luchette, a spokesman for Cicilline, quipped in an e-mail.
In an interview on WJAR-TV over the weekend, Reed, the longest-serving member of the delegation, said he intends to “work as hard as I can to get a Democrat elected.”
“I am going to be committed to electing a Democrat to president, and I'll let the Democratic voters throughout the country decide who that candidate will be,” Reed said.
A review of congressional endorsements for Democratic presidential candidates published by Politico, coupled with public statements from sitting members of Congress in Republican-dominated states, shows that Rhode Island may be the only state where no member of Congress has endorsed at any point in the race.
In Connecticut, for example, most members of Congress haven’t endorsed a current candidate, but Representative Jahana Hayes initially endorsed Senator Kamala Harris. Members of Congress in Hawaii have also been tight-lipped about endorsements, although Representative Tulsi Gabbard is running for president herself.
In Mississippi, Kansas, and West Virginia, which each have one Democrat in Congress, some incumbent Republicans have backed Trump’s re-election.
There has been no public polling on the presidential race in Rhode Island, and the candidates have only recently started staffing up and reserving ad space on local television ahead of the primary. Governor Gina Raimondo made a splash this month when she became the first governor in the country to endorse billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In 2016, every member of the delegation and Raimondo endorsed Hillary Clinton before the state’s Democratic primary, but US Senator Bernie Sanders won by nearly 12 percentage points.
Pollster Fleming said it’s reasonable to assume that Sanders will remain the favorite in Rhode Island, but he said that if the field is still crowded in late April, it’s not a guarantee that the Vermont senator will prevail.
While Fleming predicted the state of the race will look dramatically different after 1,345 delegates are awarded on Super Tuesday in March, he said it’s still possible that no frontrunner will have emerged.
That could mean the April 28 primaries – which also include Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania – will have even higher stakes.
“The conventional wisdom is that by the time it gets to Rhode Island, the race will be over,” Fleming said. “That may not be the case this time.”
And then there are the superdelegates.
If no presidential candidate earns the 1,991 delegates they need to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in July, unpledged delegates – known as superdelegates – will have the chance to vote during the second round of balloting.
In Rhode Island’s case, all four members of the congressional delegation along with Raimondo, the state’s two national committeemen, and the chair and vice-chair of the state Democratic Party, will be considered superdelegates.
They are not required to vote for the winner of the popular vote in Rhode Island.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said superdelegates will “play a crucial role” in selecting the Democratic nominee if there is no clear winner on the first ballot, but she said it all depends on who is in contention heading into the convention.
Schiller also said Rhode Island’s congressional delegation doesn’t have much to gain by endorsing a candidate now -- especially Reed and Whitehouse.
“With several US senators still in the mix," she asked, "why should Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse alienate any one of them, especially with two out of three from New England?”