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Eric Davis: Sanders could spoil Clinton's plans for Vt.

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Posted on April 16, 2015 |
By Eric Davis



Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced that she is a candidate for president in 2016. How is Clinton likely to fare in Vermont, in both the March Democratic Primary and the November General Election?

Clinton is obviously a strong favorite to win the Democratic nomination. A few others are seriously considering entering the Democratic race — among them Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Virginia Sen. James Webb, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Sen. and Gov. Lincoln Chafee — but none of them comes close to Clinton in terms of name recognition, organizational strength, experience in national politics and policy, and ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

Still, Clinton’s winning the Vermont Democratic Primary in 2016 should not be taken for granted. That primary will be held on Town Meeting Day, March 1, a little more than a month after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. If Bernie Sanders does indeed enter the race, and is still a viable candidate after Iowa and New Hampshire, he could end up winning the Vermont primary over Clinton.

In 2008, Clinton received 39 percent of the vote in the Vermont Democratic Primary, 20 points behind Barack Obama. While Clinton might do better in the 2016 Vermont primary than she did in 2008, I’m not sure she could get more votes than Sanders, one of Vermont’s most popular politicians. Sanders’ vote shares in his two Senate campaigns were 65 percent in 2006 and 71 percent in 2012.

I see two stumbling blocks for Clinton in the 2016 Vermont primary, assuming Sanders’ name is also on the ballot. The first is the same issue that hurt her in Vermont in 2008, her Senate vote in 2003 in favor of the Iraq war. The second is that, if the 2016 Republican nomination campaign is competitive, many independent and centrist Vermonters might decide to vote in the GOP primary, to support a relatively moderate candidate against a hardcore conservative. This would leave the Democratic primary electorate made up largely of Democratic base voters, who I believe would be more inclined to support Sanders rather than Clinton.

Assuming Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she will be the odds-on favorite to win Vermont’s three electoral votes in November 2016. The last Republican presidential candidate to win in Vermont was George H.W. Bush in 1988. 2016 is likely to be the seventh election in a row in which the Democratic presidential candidate wins Vermont.

However, just as I do not believe Clinton’s primary vote share will be close to what Obama’s was in 2008, I do not believe Clinton’s general election vote share in Vermont will be as high as Obama’s. In both 2008 and 2012, Obama received 67 percent of the vote in Vermont, one of his top three showings in the entire nation, along with the District of Columbia and Hawaii. I see Clinton receiving about the same vote share in Vermont in 2016 as John Kerry in 2004 — 59 percent.

If Vermont voters end up being somewhat less enthusiastic about Clinton than they were about Obama, the turnout might not be quite as high in 2016 as it was in 2008 and 2012. A slight decline in turnout could end up hurting Democratic candidates in both statewide and legislative races.

To continue the 2004 comparison, in that year both Democrat John Kerry and Republican Jim Douglas received 59 percent of the vote in the Vermont general election. If Clinton does not generate enthusiasm comparable to Obama among Vermont voters, ticket-splitting could once again work against the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, whether that candidate is Peter Shumlin or somebody else.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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