Eric Davis: Voters sent strong signal to Shumlin

Only 193,000 of Vermont’s 443,000 registered voters cast ballots in last week’s General Election. The turnout of 43.5 percent is a record low in the modern era of Vermont politics. This low turnout reflects strong dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates for governor.
Peter Shumlin ended up receiving just 46 percent of the vote. This is the lowest vote share recorded by an incumbent governor of Vermont in more than 50 years. When the turnout is taken into account, only 20 percent of registered voters supported Shumlin’s bid for a third term. While Shumlin is likely to be re-elected by an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature in January, last week’s results represent a repudiation of the governor by the voters.
I am not sure that Shumlin really understands the reasons for his low vote share. In post-election interviews with Vermont Public Radio and WCAX-TV, Shumlin explained his weak performance by saying that he had got too far ahead of the voters. He thought voters basically agreed with his agenda but thought he was moving too fast to implement it. He said voters needed more time to understand the direction he wanted to take the state, and once more explanations were offered, support for his programs would increase.
Shumlin does not appear to realize that much of the reason for his poor showing has nothing to do with issues. Many voters simply do not trust him, do not believe he is a person with integrity, and believe he serves the interests of utility companies, lawyers and lobbyists rather than rank-and-file Vermonters. While one hesitates to generalize too much on the basis of comments on news websites, I was struck by the number and vehemence of the anti-Shumlin comments posted last week on sites such as VTDigger.org, VPR, WCAX and Seven Days.
Many of these posts referred unfavorably to Shumlin’s land deal with his East Montpelier neighbor, Jeremy Dodge, as a sign that Shumlin lacked ethical standards, was too clever by half, and was someone who could not be trusted. Several comments said Shumlin seemed more interested in his national ambitions and the Democratic Governors Association than in Vermont.
Other comments were from voters who had supported Shumlin in 2010 and 2012, but could not bring themselves to vote for him this year, even though they agreed with many of his goals. Several of these posters said that they ended up either not voting, or voting for an independent candidate, rather than marking the ballot again for Shumlin.
Many of the posts came from residents of the Northeast Kingdom and Addison County, and referred specifically to Shumlin’s support of large-scale wind and natural gas projects. These comments typically said that Shumlin was far too close to Gaz Metro and its subsidiaries, Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas, and did not listen to the concerns of landowners and communities where the projects would be sited, and that under Shumlin both the Public Service Department and the Public Service Board had become rubber-stamps for the utility companies.
Shumlin has a long way to go to win back the trust of Vermonters. I am not sure whether he can be a viable candidate in 2016, either for re-election, or, should Patrick Leahy decide to retire, for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. In a small state such as Vermont, if a politician loses the confidence of the voters as Shumlin has done, the damage may be beyond repair. An advertising campaign funded by wealthy individuals, corporations and lobbyists cannot compensate for a sense among the voters that an office-holder lacks integrity and has not performed adequately on the job.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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