How low will it go? Primary turnout a factor in competitive races

ADDISON COUNTY — Every vote counts — especially when there are very few of them.
Most signs point to that being the case in the Tuesday, Aug. 14 gubernatorial primary elections, which have been characterized by low fundraising among all candidates — including by incumbent Governor Phil Scott.
“We’re looking at a low turnout primary,” said Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, who cautioned in a column in this paper last week that voter turnout could be in low teens. With four Democratic contenders and two in the Republican race, such a low turnout can significantly affect the outcome.
Meager turnout has been the rule over the past few statewide primary races. With the exception of 2010, when a highly competitive Democratic race caused turnout to surge to 24 percent of registered voters, primary turnout has hovered around the low teens and high single digits since 2008, according to data provided by the Secretary of State’s office.
But in low-profile races, major political shifts can fly under the radar.
On the Republican side, where little-known businessman Keith Stern is challenging Gov. Scott from the right, conservative anger at Scott’s support for new gun restrictions and involvement in the legislature’s June budget stalemate could create an opening for the insurgent candidate.
“We’re certainly concerned. A low turnout is not good for us,” said Brittney Wilson, the Scott campaign manager. Wilson predicted that fewer than 20,000 Republicans would cast their vote in this year’s primary — a significant drop from the 2016 total of almost 46,000.
Stern, conceding his own low profile, predicted an upset victory. “Normally, it would be very tough for me to beat an incumbent, especially without name recognition,” he said. “(But) the anti-Scott vote is going to be out very heavy. That could make it a win for me.”
Stern’s focus has been on motivating the GOP base to channel its frustrations with the governor into votes against him.
“We’ve got the gun owners’ groups, we’ve got people in small communities that are against closing their schools, we’ve got people that believe in the Constitution,” he said. “Conservative people.”
The Scott campaign, for its part, is doing what it can to drive up interest, shunning television ads in favor of targeted outreach to the governor’s supporters.
“We’re hoping for more people to turn out,” Wilson said. “They should participate in democracy. It’s unfortunate when 20,000 people decide our political fate here in Vermont, and that could happen on Tuesday.”
Stern’s odds, though, are unmistakably long — his last campaign finance disclosure revealed about $56,000 in money raised, compared with over $213,000 for Scott.
As for the Democrats, a competitive primary hasn’t managed to win most voters’ attention. A VPR-Vermont PBS Poll from last month revealed that all Democratic candidates remained somewhat unknown  to the electorate — Christine Hallquist, who has raised the most money, led the group with 41 percent name recognition.
Josh Massey, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, said he was undaunted by the possibility of low primary turnout.
“We’re happy to have four people competing for the governor’s race,” he said. “We feel like the governor is very vulnerable, his popularity has dropped immensely, and once the primary is over, we think we’re going to catch some momentum and win the general election.”

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