Eric L. Davis: State’s primary could miss the mark
The rules used by both Vermont political parties to allocate national convention delegates could result in delegations that do not reflect the preferences of the voters in the March 1 Vermont primary.
Vermont sends 16 delegates to the Republican National Convention. If one candidate receives 50 percent or more of the primary vote — an unlikely outcome, considering the number of Republican candidates — that candidate wins all 16 delegates. Otherwise, the delegates are divided proportionally among all candidates with at least 20 percent of the primary vote.
How many Republicans will exceed 20 percent of the Vermont vote? Donald Trump has his core supporters, even in Vermont. Trump could clear the 20 percent threshold, provided his organization, such as it is, can motivate Trump supporters to turn out at the polls.
Ted Cruz is unlikely to do as well in Vermont as in Iowa. There are relatively few evangelical conservatives here. However, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio all have the potential to get the votes of Vermont Republicans looking to support a “mainstream” presidential candidate.
Several of the candidates mentioned in the preceding paragraph could receive 10 to 20 percent of the Vermont primary vote. If no candidate other than Trump gets more than 20 percent, Trump could win all 16 Vermont delegates with somewhere around one-quarter of the vote.
Vermont will send 26 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, 16 of whom will be allocated to candidates in proportion to the primary election result.
Bernie Sanders should win the Vermont primary handily, regardless of how he does nationally. Sanders’ vote share in Vermont could range from 59 percent (Barack Obama’s percentage against Hillary Clinton in the Vermont 2008 Democratic primary) to 71 percent (Sanders’ percentage in his Senate re-election in 2012). This would give Sanders between 9 and 12 of the 16 proportionally allocated delegates.
The remaining 10 Vermont Democratic delegates are unpledged “superdelegates,” or elected and party officials. They include four current officeholders (Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Peter Shumlin), one former officeholder (Gov. Howard Dean), Vermont’s three members of the Democratic National Committee, and the chair and vice-chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.
To date, four of these superdelegates have announced their support for Clinton: Leahy, Shumlin, Dean and DNC member Billi Gosh. Only DNC member Richard Cassidy has announced his support for Sanders. If the other four superdelegates were to support Clinton, that could result in an 8-to-2 split of the party and elected officials in Clinton’s favor, enough to possibly eliminate Sanders’ advantage among the popularly elected delegates.
Such an outcome would probably be seen by many rank-and-file Vermont Democrats as unrepresentative. Many superdelegates say they need to consider the nation as a whole as well as the views of their own constituents. Should this matter be viewed differently when one of the presidential candidates is a Senator from one’s home state?
Leahy is almost certain to be re-elected this fall, but the media, as well as Vermont voters, should ask him to explain his support for Clinton in his role as a convention delegate in the face of what is likely to be a substantial majority for Sanders on primary day.
Welch, also a candidate for re-election, has not yet committed himself to either Sanders or Clinton. He may wait to announce his decision until shortly before the Democratic convention begins in July.
Shumlin and Dean, who will not be on the ballot themselves this year, are less accountable to the voters. However, many of the most ardent Vermont supporters of Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, and Shumlin’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, are likely to vote for Sanders over Clinton on March 1.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.