Nothing about this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary has been predictable or conventional. It’s broken all records for fund-raising ($2 million) and for the number of candidates (the last time five candidates vied in a comparable primary was the 1980 GOP U.S. Senate primary). It also has been remarkable for a general lack of negativity (no personal attacks – in public debates or advertising campaigns).
So it’s perhaps no wonder that the primary election itself would be an anomaly, too. The specter of a recount has put the Dems in election purgatory for at least a few days and maybe a few weeks. In either case, the clock is ticking for the would-be candidate in the race against Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.
The 2010 primary may make history again if any one of the top three vote getters – Peter Shumlin, Doug Racine and Deb Markowitz – calls for a recount once the Secretary of State’s office certifiesTuesday’s vote. All three are well within their rights to do so. Under Vermont law, candidates for the statewide office or the state Senate can demand a recount if the vote differential is within 2 percent. (The threshold is 5 percent for candidates for state representative and local offices.)
The state has never held a recount for a statewide primary.
“It would be a historic first, to the best of my knowledge,” said Gregory Sanford, the state archivist.
The current tally, according to the Associated Press, is: Shumlin 18,192 votes (25 percent), Racine 18,000 votes (25 percent), Markowitz 17,503 votes (24 percent), Matt Dunne 15,242 (21 percent) and Susan Bartlett 3,774 (5 percent).
Secretary of State Markowitz says her office will likely certify the vote on Friday or Saturday. Kathy DeWolfe, director of the Elections Division, is presiding over the certification of count; the deadline is Tuesday.
Until then, none of the three will concede, and the Vermont Democratic Party’s entrance into the General Election gubernatorial campaign is in limbo land. The current state of uncertainty could last a few days — if candidates concede when the certified vote is released – or several weeks, if a recount ensues.
At the party’s unity rally in Burlington, all five Democrats running for governor stood on a stage, hand in hand, to rousing applause. Once out of the limelight, fissures soon formed about the certainty of the moment. Later that afternoon, the Burlington Democratic Party released a tweet asking Racine to concede the race to Shumlin.
Shumlin, however, studiously used “seems” and “appears” – as subtle caveats in his claims to victory.
“It appears that we’ve won,” Shumlin said.
As for the specter of a recount? “We don’t think you’re going to see any squabbling among Democrats,” Shumlin said. “Right from the beginning, it’s been a very positive message from all of us, and I feel pleased that we’ve won, and we’ll know that very soon.”
Shumlin told reporters he would respect the certified vote tally and would not call for a recount if the numbers shift in Racine’s favor. He also gently bounced the ball back into Racine’s court: “I agree with any decision Doug makes,” Shumlin said. “We’re not going to quarrel about the process. This has been an incredibly respectful debate. Doug ran a great campaign; he’s made an extraordinary contribution to this state, and I’ll go with whatever judgment he makes.”
Davis said the candidates are “acting perfectly appropriately” and Shumlin is legitimate in saying “It appears that I have won.”
“Shumlin isn’t forcing the matter,” Davis said. “He isn’t doing anything to act triumphantly.”
For his part, Racine said he wouldn’t concede until the certified vote was released. “This is about getting an accurate count,” Racine said. “Mistakes can be made at this stage in the tallies.” Racine said in Williston, for example, the unofficial Associated Press count originally gave Dunne one vote, when in fact his tally was 201 votes. The difference between Shumlin and Racine is 192 votes, well within the margin of error.
Racine’s campaign manager, Amy Shollenberger, was blunt with supporters in an e-mail: “This race is still a toss-up, and we are not conceding. Doug is still very much in contention for a victory, and the results must be officially certified before the true winner is declared.”
Racine also cited the 2006 General Election, in which a 250 vote swing in a recount of the auditor’s race changed the result. Tom Salmon, who originally lost to incumbent Randy Brock, asked for a recount and won. “This is a very close tally,” Racine said. “All candidates have a right to see what the accurate numbers are.”
There appears to be no hope for Deb Markowitz, in spite of her good showing. The 689-vote gap is insurmountable, according to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College. Markowitz was tight-lipped about her own bid for a possible recount.
“We have to see the final numbers,” Markowitz said. “We have to be focused on how are we, as a party, are going to best be able to beat Brian Dubie.”
That focus, in the meantime, is hazy.
The Vermont Democratic Party’s foray into the General Election gubernatorial race is on hold until a candidate emerges from the smoke, and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie’s campaign is taking full advantage of the uncertainty. He is introducing his economic development plans on a whistlestop train tour from St. Albans to Brattleboro this Saturday and formally unveiling his 10-point proposal on Monday. He invited more than 100 supporters to a rally outside the Doubletree Hotel in South Burlington, where the first debate of the General Election was to be held last night. The debate was postponed until Sept. 26 because of the uncertain primary results.
“The polls would say he’s ahead,” said Chris Graff, longtime Vermont journalist and political observer, now a business executive in the private sector. “He’ll remain ahead until there is engagement (with the Democratic contender).”
There is a 2-1 split among pundits on the impact of a recount on the General Election. Davis and his counterpart, Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said a recount would hurt the Dems’ chances in November: “They’ve got to coalesce quickly.”
Davis said 70 percent to 80 percent of towns now use scanners instead of hand counting, which makes the tally much more accurate.
“If the margin in the official count ends up near the unofficial count somewhere near the 200-or-less mark,” Davis said, “at that point, candidates need to think very hard about whether or not they want to make the party go through the two weeks that a recount would take.”
Davis said ballots have to be brought from each town to county courthouses, and temps have to be hired to count the ballots by hand. Then those reports have to be sent to Washington County Superior Court, which has to handle any disputes about voters’ intent – a mark that’s not in a square, or something similar.
“You’re still talking about the 15th of September at the earliest,” Davis said. “If the official count shows a substantial narrowing of the margin from the unofficial count, if the official count shows a Shumlin margin of fewer than 100 votes, then I think in those circumstances, the recount might well be in order.”
Graff says a primary recount, in which roughly 72,000 voters cast ballots, isn’t a big deal. A General Election recount with 200,000 ballots cast like the Salmon-Brock recount in 2006 requires a great deal more time and effort, he said.
“I don’t think it would be damaging, because the primary was early,” Graff said.
But there is also the sour grapes factor: Will voters be turned off by a candidate who is a sore loser, who insists on a recount at the expense of the party’s success in November?
David Moats, in an editorial in The Rutland Herald on Aug. 26, wrote that all three top vote-getters are in an “excruciating” position, and “for either Racine or Markowitz to call for a recount could well put (the General Election) in jeopardy.”
“My sense is, if the margin stays where it is, that going forward to the General Election would be the appropriate thing to do,” Eric Davis said.
Was the five-way governor’s nomination race a mistake?
For lack of a single winner on Wednesday, the Vermont Democratic Party gave out a Miss Congeniality award at the unity rally – to all five gubernatorial candidates. Not a harsh word was spoken (in public, anyway) over the course of the 10-month campaign slog. The candidates sometimes expressed frustration, but they refrained from front-on attacks in ads and in more than 60 forums.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch both defended the five-way gubernatorial race at the rally. They both said it attracted more voters, brought in more campaign cash and generated more excitement than ever for the Democratic Party.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of enthusiasm (in the General Election),” Leahy said.
This year, the open governor’s seat shuffled almost all of the primary cards – opening up four other statewide seats, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and the auditor’s office. The Democrats had 13 candidates competing for the four slots, while the GOP had four candidates running in statewide primary races – two each for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The only offices that weren’t touched by Gov. Jim Douglas’ decision not to run for a fifth term were the attorney general and the state treasurer.
Nelson said the five-way gubernatorial race shouldn’t have happened in the first place. “The Democrats are dim-witted,” Nelson said. “They should never ever have committed five people to run for the same office. The lieutenant governor’s office was open, the auditor’s office was open, and the secretary of state’s office was open. That’s the reality folks. They had four offices, and they became dim-witted. That’s why you need a king where you sit down and say this is the job you run for, but instead they threw away $2 million and gave four people losing records.”
Sanford, the state archivist, disagrees. “Some people say this is a breakdown of party discipline — how can you end up with five in one race?” Sanford said. “The contrarian in me says the primary is finally working the way it’s supposed to, giving voters an opportunity to select among credible candidates.”
Sanford compared the 2010 primary to the 1958 and 1980 GOP congressional races, and the 2000 GOP gubernatorial primary between Bill Meub and Ruth Dwyer. Sanford said he’s not sure there has been a primary that has involved so many hotly contested statewide party races since the state instituted the first primary in 1916.
“To see a race … attract a lot of attention up and down ticket is very rare,” Sanford said.
Will the losses do permanent damage? Nelson said Markowitz and Dunne ran credible races, and they’ll both be back. Nelson said Welch, Madeleine Kunin, Racine and Douglas all lost hard-fought statewide races over the course of their careers, only to try again and win.
“Because of the two-year term, your career is never over in Vermont,” Nelson said. “But the more defeats you pick up, the more difficult it is to raise money, and that’s the issue. That’s where the defeats have their adverse impact.”
Hindsight is 20/20
So why did Markowitz, Racine and Shumlin hit the winner’s tape at practically the same time?
Shumlin and Markowitz very likely spent more than half a million each over the course of their campaigns. Shumlin, who put at least $225,000 of his own money into the campaign, employed a carpet bombing approach to advertising, saturating broadcast outlets around the state, but especially in Chittenden County where he needed to buy name recognition. Markowitz invested her money into a textbook campaign with a large field staff.
Racine raised half as much money and went the distance against his richer counterparts. He relied on his name recognition in Chittenden County and his status as the beloved candidate of the left-of-center Dems and the Progressives, and his endorsements from Vermont-NEA, the AFL-CIO, the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont League of Conservation Voters translated into on-the-ground grassroots support.
“I think we’re seeing that those kinds of resources count just as much as money does,” Racine said. “If this is a referendum on tactics, there’s no clear winner here tonight (Tuesday).”
The Dunne, Markowitz, Racine and Shumlin campaigns had identified about 15,000 likely voters, Graff said. None of them could have predicted that the turnout would be roughly 72,000 for the Democrats – not 45,000 as speculated. The GOP drew 26,000 voters for highly competitive races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
Graff said each gubernatorial candidate employed effective strategies; he blames the close race on turnout.
“The four major candidates did what they had to do,” Graff said. “It’s just that turnout was larger than planned.”
Shumlin came in first statewide because he got such a huge percentage in Windham County, according to Davis who has analyzed the results. Shumlin placed third in the other 13 counties, Davis said.
Davis aggregated the vote tallies for Racine and Markowitz county by county and determined that with the exception of Windham County, Racine came in first with a 1,000 vote lead over Markowitz.
“My view is Shumlin won because he got such a huge turnout in Windham, and because they had a contested Senate primary,” Davis said. Shumlin’s open seat in the Senate was effectively filled on Tuesday, and so he benefited not only from a strong base in Windham County, which he has represented in the Senate for years, but also because voters turned out in large numbers.
Shumlin wasn’t the only candidate who benefitted from the “friends and neighbors phenomenon,” Davis said. Matt Dunne won Orange and Windsor counties – his home base in the Upper Valley – but was unable to carry that success over to the rest of state, with the exception of Lamoille County.
“Racine and Markowitz had a vote that was much more widely dispersed across the state geographically than Shumlin, Dunne or Bartlett,” Davis said. “But Shumlin came out of Windham with enough votes to come in first statewide.”
Racine would have liked to have done better in Chittenden County, where he grew up, and his fourth- place showing in Windham County hurt him, Davis said.
“I think (Racine) righted the ship after a disappointing financial report in July,” Davis said. “My sense was, the Racine campaign was in good shape and the primary election might have come a week too early for him. If the primaries had been a week later, I wonder whether Doug Racine might have gotten those 200 extra votes and might have come out on top.”
Markowitz was in a much stronger position at the beginning of the summer, but she may have peaked too early, or the other candidates surged past her, Davis said. Had the election been held in June, Davis contends she would have won the election with as much as 40 percent of the vote. Instead, she ended up with 25 percent. She lost Montpelier, her home, to Racine by one percentage point, and Barre and Barre Town by 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, according to the totals from the Associated Press. She failed to carry the majority in most Washington County towns.
“My sense is that voters who may have told a pollster in June that they were supporting Markowitz, but as the other candidates started to campaign harder and became more visible, those voters might have taken a second look and decided that somebody else was whom they were going to be voting for in the end,” Davis said.
Another pattern that is starting to emerge is a split between towns that favored Racine and Markowitz or Shumlin and Dunne. Though Davis said he hasn’t fully finished this analysis, a trend is already evident.
“In quite a few of the towns I’ve looked at where Shumlin was first, Dunne was second and vice versa, and (towns) where Racine was first and Markowitz was often second,” Davis said. He pointed to Addison County as an example. When the total votes cast for Shumlin and Dunne are added together, they add up to more than 50 percent. Racine and Markowitz votes, in contrast, were above 30 percent. The reverse is true in Rutland County where Racine and Markowitz together were more than 50 percent.
If Shumlin is the Democratic primary nominee for the General Election, he’ll need to win the towns that Racine and Markowitz held, Davis said.
What would Davis, Nelson and Graff do? Part 1
The first order of business is raising more money, according to Davis. The Democratic contender needs to have $1 million in hand for the General Election. If the nominee is Shumlin, he may spend more of his own money on the race, Davis said.
“I think Peter Shumlin, assuming he’s certified as the winner, needs to do two things for the fall campaign: One is mobilize the base to drive up turnout, and the second is, keep ticket-splitting voters from defecting to Dubie,” Davis said. “Those ticket-splitting voters are going to vote for Leahy and Welch at the top of the ballot, so what Shumlin needs to do is get them to stay Democratic as they move down the offices on the ballot.”
Graff agrees. Shumlin, if he is the nominee, will need to galvanize the left and pivot to the middle in the same motion.
One way to do that is for the nominee to concentrate on mid-size, swing communities that aren’t solidly Democratic or Republican, towns like Colchester, Milton, Barre, Barre Town, Northfield, Randolph, Bethel and Bennington.
“These have often been the places where Vermont elections get determined,” Davis said.
Voters split tickets in these towns and in the past have voted for Leahy and Jim Douglas over Scudder Parker, or John Kerry and Jim Douglas over Peter Clavelle. “Shumlin needs to get those sort of voters voting Democratic all the way down the ticket,” Davis said. He suggested that Leahy and Welch should campaign for the Democratic nominee in those towns.
Nelson said if Shumlin is the nominee, he will need to win over Racine’s loyal supporters.
“If I’m Peter, I would say to Doug, you name your job — whatever you want (in the administration) you can have it,” Nelson said. “I would work with Doug to make sure I campaign with him and tap into those people who are devoted to Doug. They’re going to be hard to transfer.”
The most crucial thing Shumlin needs to do, according to Graff, is to get his message out ahead of Dubie’s.
“What really matters is, who can get their opponent on the defensive and define them the fastest,” Graff said. “That’s what Jim Douglas did in each of his elections with Clavelle, Parker and Symington.”
What would Davis, Nelson and Graff do? Part 2
Their advice for Dubie? Learn from the master, i.e. Jim Douglas.
Douglas worked hand in glove with two savvy political operatives – Neale Lunderville and Jim Barnett – who were able to frame the campaigns before the incumbent governor’s opponents realized what was going on. “People don’t realize how skillful, how disciplined and on message they were,” Graff said.
Graff said at this point, “We don’t know if Dubie has the messaging discipline to pull it off.”
Douglas typically won 60 percent of the independent or moderate voters, Graff said, and Dubie will need to do the same. “In a General Election, that’s where the votes are,” he said. “The race will be won in the middle. You’ll see both nominees talk about jobs and the economy.”
The best way for Dubie to secure the middle is to campaign in the swing towns, according to Davis. Though there is some transference of Douglas’ popularity onto Dubie, “It’s not absolute by any means,” Davis said. “Jim Douglas ought to campaign for him where he has done well, but where Democrats aren’t necessarily strong. Jim Douglas shouldn’t be spending his time in the fall talking to the Republican committee in Caledonia County or someplace like that. He should be in Barre and Northfield and Colchester.”
It appears that there will be a battle of surrogates—Pat Leahy and Jim Douglas—for their respective party candidates. Douglas is out front for Dubie already, and Leahy made a commitment to campaign for whoever won the Democratic nomination.
Nelson said Dubie doesn’t appear to have the energy level Douglas has, and he hasn’t won a race on his own. The professor is critical of the lieutenant governor’s campaign strategy. “Dubie has made a mistake,” Nelson said. “You can’t switch campaigns on and off.”
All three political analysts see the debates as a defining factor in the General Election. The forums, they agree, will not be Dubie’s strong suit. “I think you’ll see Brian Dubie avoid one-on-one debates,” Graff said. Instead, he’ll likely insist that the five minor party candidates be included in all of the debates, according to Davis. “I think voters of the state would benefit from several broadcast debates between Brian Dubie and Peter Shumlin, rather than debates between seven people, only two of whom have a chance of being elected governor,” Davis said.
If Shumlin takes the nomination, he’ll have an edge as a debater, Nelson says, because he’s quick-witted and has a grasp of the issues.
Graff thinks winning in the General Election will come down to intangibles that have nothing to do with the issues. Vermonters want to know the governor on a personal level, Graff said. They like Douglas because they trust him.
“There’s a great deal of personality and personal chemistry that matters,” Graff said.
A lot of voters like Dubie, Graff said, but he doesn’t know how superficial the attraction may be at this point. Running for lieutenant governor is like performing in an off-off Broadway production and campaigning for the top office is “the show,” Graff said. There is simply less scrutiny, he said, of down-ticket office holders.
“I think Brian Dubie has a significant lead right now, and it will narrow, unless somebody does something stupid,” Graff said.
He predicted by mid-October the race would be too close to call.