Politically Thinking: Vermont showcases its liberal colors

As they left the polls last Tuesday, 869 Vermont voters completed an exit poll conducted by a consortium of national news organizations. This poll shows some of the ways in which Vermont differs from most of the nation, and provides some of the reasons why Peter Shumlin was elected governor.
Nationally, President Obama’s approval rating is 45 percent. In Vermont, his approval rating is 60 percent. Only in Obama’s native state of Hawaii — where he has 66 percent support — is the president’s approval higher than in Vermont.
A few states resisted last week’s national Republican trend and elected or re-elected Democratic governors. In these states, a majority of voters approve of Obama’s performance in office. Peter Shumlin, like Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Illinois, California, and Hawaii, was running in a state in which the president remains popular.
Vermont voters are distinctive not only in giving Obama strong support, but also in being considerably more liberal than the nation as a whole. Nationally, 39 percent of voters called themselves conservative. In Vermont, only 24 percent of voters were self-identified conservatives.
Nationally, 40 percent of voters generally approved of the tea party. In Vermont, only 25 percent of voters called themselves supporters of the tea party. Even in states such as California and New York where Democratic candidates for governor won convincing victories, tea party support was in the mid-30 percent range, about 10 points higher than in Vermont.
The strong liberal and progressive streak that characterizes the Vermont electorate was perhaps most evident in the exit poll question on health care policy. Nationally, 48 percent of exit poll respondents want Congress to repeal the new health care bill. Only 34 percent of Vermonters support repeal, while 43 percent of the Vermonters polled believe last year’s health care bill does not go far enough and should be expanded. Many of this last group support a single-payer health care system, which was, of course, one of the major policies on which Peter Shumlin based his campaign.
In fact, looking at the exit poll results as a whole, I am surprised that Brian Dubie did as well as he did, receiving more than 47 percent of the vote. The political and ideological makeup of the Vermont electorate is comparable to that in Massachusetts and California. In those two states, Republican candidates for governor received between 41 and 43 percent of the vote.
Why did Dubie run about five points better than Republican candidates in states that are politically similar to Vermont? Part of the answer has to do with Vermonters’ propensity to split their tickets by voting for candidates of different parties. Because Vermont does not have voter registration by party, fewer Vermonters than voters in other states think of themselves as affiliated with the Democratic or the Republican party. This provided Dubie the opportunity to do better among independent voters than Republican candidates in comparable states. About 25 percent of those who voted for Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch at the top of their ballots then voted for Dubie for governor.
Still, the exit poll showed that Shumlin was able to defeat Dubie among independent voters.
Shumlin improved his performance among independents by about 15 percent between a mid-October poll and Election Day. This is due both to the strong get-out-the-vote effort of the Shumlin campaign and to independent voters’ turning away from Dubie during the final weeks of the campaign, some because of Dubie’s social conservatism, others because of Dubie’s negative advertising.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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