Eric Davis: Dems brace for low primary turnout

The Democratic nominee for governor could end up being chosen by as few as 20,000 voters in what is likely to be a low-turnout primary on Aug. 9.

The Legislature moved the primary to the second week of August because the Secretary of State’s office said more time was needed between the primary and the general election to resolve recounts and distribute ballots to overseas, military, and absentee voters. The problem with an early-August primary is that it occurs at a time when many voters will be on vacation, at summer camps, or otherwise not paying as much attention to politics as after Labor Day.

Other states in New England, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, continue to have September primaries. There is no evidence that these states are any less efficient than Vermont in providing ballots to absentee voters.

There are about 450,000 registered voters in Vermont. The turnout on Aug. 9 could be less than 20 percent — 50,000 to 60,000 in the Democratic primary and 25,000 to 30,000 in the Republican primary. With three major candidates in the Democratic primary, the winner could end up with fewer than 20,000 votes, a small percentage of what will be needed to be elected governor in November.

All three of these candidates — Matt Dunne, Peter Galbraith and Sue Minter — accept the Vermont Democratic consensus: that an activist state government is needed to reduce inequality, expand opportunity and improve the life chances of Vermonters; that there is spare tax capacity among higher-income individuals and the business community to fund such programs; and that state government has the competence to successfully deliver expanded and complex programs.

Within that consensus, there are some differences among the candidates. Minter is more supportive of additional regulations on sales of guns and ammunition; Galbraith is more opposed to new industrial wind projects; and Dunne is more skeptical of the benefits of school consolidation under Act 46.

However, with the three candidates basically agreeing on most issues, the primary could end up being decided as much by organization — which candidate is best able to identity his or her supporters and get them to the polls — than on the candidates’ issue stands, personal and professional backgrounds and political experience.

The Democratic electorate in a low-turnout primary is likely to be considerably more progressive than the much larger electorate that goes to the polls in November. The challenge for the gubernatorial candidates will be to balance the need to pivot to the left in order to win the Democratic primary without losing the support of the independent and centrist voters they need to be elected governor in the fall. Many swing voters have reservations about the Democratic consensus.

Some polls of the Democratic primary may be released between now and Aug. 9. I will treat any such polls with great caution. In a low-turnout primary environment, most survey organizations do not ask enough screening questions to separate likely primary voters from those who will not be voting.

Simply asking voters in a telephone call whether they intend to cast a ballot in the primary is not a good indicator of turnout. Too many people give the socially desirable response of saying they will vote when they actually will not for the findings of pre-primary polls to be valid.

Added to the particular problem of low primary turnout are the systemic difficulties that appear to be affecting polls worldwide, with pre-election polls in settings as varied as the California Democratic presidential primary, the British referendum on the European Union, the Canadian general election, and the Israeli general election all turning out to be quite different from the actual election results.

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

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