It’s an off election year in Vermont with no presidential or U.S. Senate race and an incumbent in the governor’s race, and the result will be a low voter turnout this General Election, according to Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science from Middlebury College.
The last time this phenomenon occurred was 1978, when Dick Snelling ran for a second term and there was no presidential or senate race. In 2002 and 1990, there were open governors’ races that drove Vermonters to the ballot boxes.
The turnout in 1978 year was 44.5 percent, which by Vermont standards is very low. Typically, about 50 percent of voters come out in an off year, and roughly 70 percent for a presidential election.
Davis predicts turnout will be between 45 percent and 50 percent of registered voters.
The low turnout this year will likely hurt Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Democrats more than it will affect the Republicans and smaller parties, Davis said. That’s because voters who identify as members of the Vermont GOP will be more motivated by their dislike of Shumlin and support of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the only incumbent Republican running for statewide office.
In the August primary, Republicans were more motivated than Democrats. Normally the turnout ratio is 70 percent Dems to 30 percent GOP, but in August the ratio was 55 percent to 45 percent.
The end result? Shumlin’s base of support will drop from 20 points over his 2012 win against Republican challenger Randy Brock to a 10 point margin over Republican Scott Milne. In 2012, Brock got 37 percent of the vote; Shumlin received 57 percent of the ballots cast.
Davis speculates that Milne will get 38 percent to 42 percent of the vote, and Shumlin will land between 48 percent and 52 percent. Milne will have to fight off Shumlin and Dan Feliciano, the libertarian candidate, who will likely get 8 percent to 10 percent of ballots cast, depending on how much media coverage he gets in the next several months.
“I expect Shumlin to come in first,” Davis said. “But Shumlin needs to work hard to get above 50. If he wants a mandate for single payer he needs half of the votes cast.” He suggested that the Democratic field organizers are going to need to work hard to get independents who lean Democratic to turn out and get Shumlin’s percentage above 50.
Davis says it’s possible the Republican Governors Association could put $100,000 up to back Scott Milne’s race and in order to force Shumlin, who is head of the Democratic Governors Association, to work harder in Vermont to defend his own and spend down his $1 million plus warchest. That strategy would also make it tougher for Shumlin to leave the state in order to campaign on behalf of Democratic governors in other states that the RGA is trying to defeat, he said.
Shumlin is trying to build a national reputation, Davis said, in anticipation of a potential U.S. Senate run when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., retires.
Key to those ambitions is the success of Shumlin’s single payer initiative. The proposal to shift the payment mechanism from premiums to insurance companies to taxes imposed by state government is still perceived as a heavy lift this legislative session, even in the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. The financing plan could “have a rough go of it” in the Legislature, Davis says, and unions could scrap over the benefit levels. It’s possible, he says, that the governor and lawmakers will delay pulling the trigger on the initiative and that it won’t go into effect in 2017, as promised.
Republicans are expected to gain control of the U.S. Senate in November, Davis says. If they pick up more than one or two seats and end up with a majority of 55 or more, it’s possible that Leahy could decide not to run in 2016. In that scenario, Davis says Shumlin will likely make a bid for the Senate.
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