Salisbury, a political bellweather?
SALISBURY — Search out TripAdvisor.com’s “15 Best Things to Do” in this small Vermont town and you’ll only find three — Lake Dunmore, its beach and its dockside — for lack of much else. But that doesn’t stop residents from remembering when their Addison County community of farmhouses and vacation cottages served as the state’s political axis.
A half-century ago, before Green Mountain candidates and the press spent big money on public opinion surveys, the late Saint Michael’s College professor Vincent Naramore noticed that although Salisbury was too far northwest to be Vermont’s geographic center, voting in the town of 600 (its population has since doubled) consistently mirrored state results.
That’s why, for a decade starting in 1964, Naramore polled residents and publicized his findings from what reporters would deem Vermont’s electoral bellwether.
“Growing up here, I remember they said, ‘As Salisbury goes, so goes the state,’” Town Treasurer Brenda Burchard says today.
Few other locals were around at the time to know. But Frederick Maher, a fellow Saint Michael’s professor who worked with Naramore, can tell the whole story.
“The Salisbury poll started out as kind of a lark,” says Maher, 88, who points to the 1947 Jimmy Stewart film “Magic Town” about a community that always votes for the victor.
“Vincent was playing on this,” his colleague recalls. “He had a rather puckish personality and an impish, leprechaun-like sense of humor. It was a fun thing, so he could say three weeks before an election, ‘Salisbury, the town that always votes for the winner, this year is for …’”
In 1964, Naramore was surprised to find townspeople favoring Democratic President Lyndon Johnson over Republican challenger Barry Goldwater.
“Those readings were hard to believe, particularly since they indicated overwhelming support for President Johnson in a state that had always gone Republican for president since the birth of the Republican Party in 1854,” the professor would write.
But that November, Vermont voted for Johnson, changing the course of Salisbury and state history.
Naramore may have reported his poll with a smile, but the Vermont press began to splash it on front pages with serious quantities of ink.
“Salisbury, 40 miles south of Burlington, is considered one of the state’s key bellwether communities because it has gone with the winners in virtually every state election since 1930,” the Associated Press announced in print and on air in 1970.
That, in turn, led politicians to campaign heavily there in hopes of boosting survey numbers they knew would be broadcast from northernmost Alburgh to southernmost Vernon.
As Naramore said then: “Former Vermont Development Director Elbert Moulton once facetiously suggested that they abandon statewide campaigning in order to campaign exclusively in Salisbury.”
Adds Maher today: “Anybody interested in politics knew about Salisbury, even though they might have been hard-pressed to tell you where it was. If you were a betting person, you might have been more inclined to go out and bet — although one should never bet on elections, of course.”
Few questioned the impetus of Naramore’s poll.
“The town has tended to predict the outcome of state races with a high degree of accuracy,” the late Vermont Statehouse reporter Mavis Doyle summed it up at the time.
But the survey was anything but scientific.
“Vincent didn’t claim it was all that systematic and sophisticated — it wasn’t the kind of sample one was supposed to have,” Maher says. “He was from that part of the state, so he just went and talked to a bunch of people he knew. He always made a point to talk to them because he’d always get a cup of coffee when he did.”
Although several longtime locals recall the poll, none participated in the survey that put their small town on the state map.
“Salisbury was the bellwether, but if you can find 20 people in town who remember, you’d be doing real well,” selectboard Chairwoman Martha Sullivan says.
“The demographics of the town and the state have changed,” Burchard adds, “although perhaps not in a parallel manner.”
After a century of state Republican rule, Vermont politics started to shift to the left in the 1960s with the election of Democrat Philip Hoff as governor. Yet in 1974, Naramore’s poll found the most local interest in GOP candidates seeking to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. George Aiken.
The Republican primary featured Richard Mallary, then the state’s U.S. representative, running against Charles Ross, a former Federal Power Commission member who reportedly gave a pine tree to each likely Salisbury voter. When Naramore found Ross topped the town poll, he warned it should be taken with “several grains of salt,” perhaps anticipating Mallary’s subsequent primary win.
“Salisbury may well lose its ‘bellwether’ status,” a front-page Bennington Banner headline noted soon after.
By November, Naramore’s poll found Mallary far ahead of his Democratic rival.
“And Here’s How It Will Go If You Believe the Salisbury Polls,” read the North Adams Transcript headline in neighboring Massachusetts.
The man Mallary was supposed to beat: Patrick Leahy.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the Naramore polls,” the Democrat who’s now the longest-serving current U.S. senator began his victory speech that election night.
The 1974 survey did correctly predict Democrat Thomas Salmon’s win as governor and Republican James Jeffords’ win as U.S. representative. But when Leahy said hello to Washington, Naramore said goodbye to Salisbury.
“We didn’t stop predicting Salisbury,” the professor said at the time, “but Salisbury stopped predicting the state.”
Longtime locals can’t explain exactly what skewed Salisbury’s perspective, although Sullivan wonders if Naramore encountered more Republican natives than Democratic newcomers.
“If he was just driving along, he might have seen someone on a tractor,” she says. “That makes me think he was more apt to speak with farmers.”
Naramore himself noted “ample evidence indicated that a Madison Avenue type of advertising campaign had biased its results.” That said, Salisbury continues to lean more to the right than a majority of Vermont. In the last election, Republican Gov. Phil Scott won the state with 52 percent of the vote, yet swept the town with 60 percent.
Naramore turned his attention from Salisbury to state telephone surveys, only to watch politicians and the press begin to hire professional firms.
“Polls are not predictions — they are like taking a photo of a horse race halfway through,” the professor told an audience in 1980. “The best political postmortem I have ever heard came from the legendary Jim Farley, who theorized in 1952 that the only reason he could figure out for Eisenhower’s victory was that he got more votes than Stevenson.”
Naramore, who retired the same year as Maher in 1996, died in 2003 at age 83. One obituary tagged him “the father of Vermont polling.”
“I haven’t heard anybody ask anything about the poll in years,” Maher says. “The older you get, the more you realize nobody remembers much of anything.”
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