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Politically Thinking: Obama remains popular in Vermont

Vermont’s 2012 presidential primary will be held in six months, on Town Meeting Day, March 6. Compared with 2008, next year’s Vermont presidential primary is likely to be a low-key affair. In 2008, the combination of open presidential nominating contests in both parties, and the presence of three candidates who were well-organized and had extensive support in Vermont — John McCain on the Republican side and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side — resulted in a primary with high public attention and a record turnout.
President Obama will certainly win Vermont’s three electoral votes in November 2012, regardless of who his Republican opponent turns out to be. Throughout his presidency, polls have shown that Obama’s approval in Vermont has consistently run about 15 points above his national approval level. National polls show that Obama’s approval is now about 40 percent — not a good number for an incumbent with just over a year to go until an election — while Vermont polls show slightly more than 50 percent approval for the president.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is trying to encourage a candidate to challenge Obama in next year’s Democratic primaries, but so far no such candidate has emerged. Someone like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (whose Ohio congressional district is likely to disappear as a result of reapportionment) might end up running against Obama next year. However, a challenger to Obama from the left is unlikely to do any better in Vermont than the 10 to 15 percent vote share that challengers from the left to Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch have obtained in recent Democratic primaries.
The serious issue for Obama in Vermont next year is not whether he will win the primary and the general election, but how much enthusiasm there will be for his campaign among Vermont Democratic activists. Many of these activists are disappointed with the president on a range of issues — including tax and budget policy, environmental policy and foreign policy. Whether they work for his campaign in 2012, and make the small contributions to his campaign in 2012, to the extent they did in 2008 is still an open question. Enthusiasm for Obama among Vermont Democrats may not manifest itself until the final months of the campaign, once the identity of the Republican nominee is known and the contrasts between that nominee and Obama come into clearer focus.
In recent years, turnout in Vermont Republican primaries has been much less than in Democratic primaries. Vermont law does not allow for advance registration by political party. Thus, any voter may participate in either party’s presidential primary by asking for either the Democratic or the Republican ballot at the polls. (Unlike the primaries for state offices, where the voter chooses in the booth which party’s ballot to cast, in presidential primaries the voter must ask for a specific party’s ballot.) Perhaps the most important question about next year’s Vermont Republican primary is the extent to which voters who consider themselves independents will choose to participate in the Republican primary.
Some of the leading Republican presidential candidates — in particular Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry — are unlikely to have broad appeal in Vermont. The only way these candidates would do well in the Vermont Republican primary would be if turnout were low and confined to Tea Party-like activists. A larger Vermont Republican primary turnout, including more independents, would help the campaigns of the more mainstream center-right candidates such as former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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