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November 07, 2010

Election Analysis: Why No Shellacking in Vermont?

Democrats were decidedly NOT shellacked in Vermont. Our lone House member, Peter Welch (D), and our senior Senator, Pat Leahy (D), were considered shoo-ins – and they were. The governorship being vacated by Jim Douglas (R), was won by Peter Shumlin (D). Republicans picked up one seat in the State Senate, which leaves Democrats in control 22-8, and may not have picked up any seats in the House (two seats are still undecided), where Democrats started with a veto-proof supermajority.

So why is Vermont so different than other states? It's not Northern New England stubbornness; in neighboring Maine Republicans took the governorship and control of both houses of the legislature from the Democrats. In New Hampshire both houses of the legislature as well as both US House seats went from Democrat to Republican control. Nationally Republicans increased their representation in state legislatures by an all-time record of at least 675 seats.

Why was Vermont different?

The simple explanation is that this is a very blue state. One might conclude that Republicans are still an endangered species here (although we now know what a difference two years can make in the ecology of a political species). It is certainly possible that some Vermonters made a special point of voting to counter the national trend; Obama still has a very high favorability rating in Vermont polls.

Looking further for explanations:

The national trend to the FISCAL right probably IS a factor here. Both gubernatorial candidates, for example, talked about cutting budgets and avoiding new taxes. Democrats attacked Republican candidate Brian Dubie for his right-to-life position particularly vehemently during the last few weeks of the campaign. That's probably a sign that polls showed him vulnerable and losing support on this issue. Vermont – the first state to legislatively approve gay marriage – is decidedly NOT SOCIALLY conservative. Abortion hasn't been an issue here for a long time; Dubie certainly didn't raise it; his never-secret views didn't prevent him from being elected Lt. Governor multiple times; but Governor is different and the Ds hammered at that point. Nationally, voters seemed to have been seeking fiscal rather than social conservatives; makes sense in a time of economic problems. Dubie did make a very close race of it; it's possible that the abortion issue would have cost him even more votes if people weren't disillusioned with Democrats. The surprise may be that a right-to-life candidate came so close to winning rather than that the more fiscally conservative candidate lost. A number of legislative races were also very close – but so far all seem to be breaking for the Ds. A few votes in a few key districts or a few more votes per district for Dubie would have made the results look very different.

Vermont hasn't been hit nearly as hard by the national recession as most other states. Our unemployment rate is now under 6%; our banks were prudent so there has simply not been a foreclosure crisis here nor have local banks failed or been visibly bailed out. Vermont received more than its per capita share of stimulus money. Republicans in Vermont have a Cassandra problem: it's easy (and probably accurate) to predict that our over-spending and over-taxing will lead to catastrophe; but meanwhile we're doing better than the rest of the country in preserving jobs and are recovering from the recession. Moreover, our steeply progressive tax rate is at least a short-term benefit to many voters. It's easier to be a positive and attractive candidate if you're not trying to convince people that doom is around the next corner. While the goose is still alive, it's hard not to be charmed by the golden eggs.

On the other hand, the unemployment rate in New Hampshire is even lower than the rate in Vermont, and Democrats got shellacked there. California has an unemployment rate considerably higher than the national average. But its election results look a lot like Vermont: a retiring Republican governor was replaced by a Democrat; the incumbent Democratic Senator won re-election (although she had to fight for her seat); there is no significant change in the lopsidedly Democratic tilt of the California legislature.

Across the country there were four stand-out anomaly states, which seemed oblivious to the national trend: Vermont, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts (despite being the place where Republican Scott Brown kicked off this election cycle by replacing Ted Kennedy). I'm not counting states where Republicans simply lost by running impossible candidates. One possible explanation for these anomalies is self-selection. People move to New Hampshire because it has no income tax; it's not surprising that they then react to a fiscal crisis by quickly purging spenders even though employment is relatively robust in their state. People (like me) move to Vermont or California or Massachusetts despite the high taxes. Some move here and there because of rich benefit programs. In Vermont more people seem to dream of starting a non-profit than getting rich; we have lots of non-profits. Non-profits aren't discouraged by taxes.

The federal stimulus money that helped keep Vermont's generosity going is disappearing; with Washington in more frugal hands; it's not going to be replenished. People in other states which are swallowing bitter medicine now will not want to see their federal taxes or the federal debt increase to support Vermont spending. Vermont must change to prosper.

That change may come after the dangers of our current policies become evident in lost jobs and shrinking tax revenues relative to the rest of the country; if we wait until then, recovery will be long and difficult since both businesses and wealthy taxpayers will have already fled. A happier scenario would be that enlightened and persuasive leaders somehow manage to present an alternative to a situation which people don't yet feel is all that bad. That alternative must be a message of opportunity as well as potential doom; it has to be positive about what we can do; and it can't get trapped and wrapped in social issues.

 

Related post:

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

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