Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Turnout questions for Vermont primary

Vermont voters will cast presidential primary ballots on Tuesday, March 3, along with voting for local offices and school budgets on Town Meeting Day. Vermont will be one of 14 states holding primary elections on that “Super Tuesday.”
Any voter in Vermont may vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primary. However, unlike in the August primary for state offices, where the voter’s choice of which ballot to mark is secret, in the presidential primary the voter must ask for either the Democratic or the Republican ballot.
The highest turnout in a presidential primary in Vermont was in 2008, when there were competitive contests in both parties, won by Barack Obama for the Democrats and John McCain for the Republicans. That year, just over 50 percent of Vermont registered voters cast ballots in the presidential primary, one of the highest primary turnouts of any state in the nation.
Four years later, in 2012, Vermont presidential primary turnout plunged to only 19 percent of the registered voters, as Obama was unopposed for nomination for a second term, and Mitt Romney’s candidacy did not arouse great enthusiasm among Vermont Republicans.
The 2016 presidential primary saw Vermont turnout return to a healthy level of 42 percent, with Bernie Sanders winning a big victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and Donald Trump coming in first in a large field of Republican candidates. In 2016, 69 percent of Vermont primary ballots were cast in the Democratic primary, 31 percent in the Republican.
How large will the turnout be this year, and how will it be divided between the two parties? With the intense interest in the Democratic contest, and with Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders on the ballot, I would expect turnout to be somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, at least as high as in 2016, perhaps even approaching the level seen in 2008.
Substantially more Vermonters will choose the Democratic ballot, where the contest will be very competitive, than the Republican ballot, which President Trump is sure to win. In both 2012 and 2016, about 60,000 Vermonters cast ballots in the Republican presidential primary. Will Trump attract more Vermonters to his cause in this year’s primary, or will he drive independent-minded Republicans into the Democratic primary in order to vote for someone who they think could defeat the President in November?
I am interested to see whether Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, can get any traction against Trump in the Republican primary. If there are any states where Weld might be able to get more than 10 percent of the vote against Trump, they would be Massachusetts and Vermont, which both vote on Super Tuesday and do not limit participation in the Republican primary to registered Republicans.
The filing deadline for the Vermont primary was in December. Thus, there are some candidates listed on the Democratic ballot, such as Julian Castro and Marianne Williamson, who have ended their campaigns. Others may withdraw or suspend their candidacies if they do not do well in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and the Nevada caucuses.
The March 3 Super Tuesday elections will be the first Democratic primaries in which Michael Bloomberg’s name will appear on the ballot. Bloomberg has been advertising heavily in Vermont, on the air, online and through direct mail.
Finally, a suggestion to those voters who have requested absentee ballots so they can vote in the Democratic primary early. While you may request an absentee ballot at any time, hold on to it until shortly before March 3 before returning it to your town clerk. With important elections in Nevada and South Carolina in the weeks ahead, and two more Democratic debates scheduled for later in February, waiting until close to March 3 will enable you to vote on the basis of political news and developments over the next few weeks.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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