Gov. Phil Scott and the rest of Vermont’s incumbent statewide officeholders appear to be on a safe track toward re-election, according to the results of a new poll commissioned by VPR and Vermont PBS.
Among the 495 likely voters surveyed between Oct. 5 and Oct. 14, 42 percent say they will, or already have, voted for Scott. Christine Hallquist, the Democratic challenger, carried 28 percent of voters, putting Scott’s lead well within the 4.4 percent margin of error.
“To be really blunt, unless something miraculous changes in the next few weeks, Christine Hallquist will lose this election, and she will lose it ... by double digits,” said Ellen Andersen, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont.
Andersen’s interpretation of the poll data is consistent with other political scientists with whom VPR shared advance copies of the survey. And they say the secret to Scott’s likely electoral success in 2018 is his unusually consistent support across ideological lines.
Scott’s favorability numbers aren’t off the charts. According to the VPR - Vermont PBS Poll — the only public poll of the 2018 general election campaign so far — 45 percent of residents say they approve of the job Scott is doing.
But only about a quarter of Vermonters say they disapprove of Scott’s performance. And those net favorability ratings are remarkably consistent across party lines: 49 percent of Republicans say they approve of Scott’s job performance, while 30 percent say they disapprove; 45 percent of Democrats say they approve of Scott, and 27 percent disapprove.
Andersen says that, according to poll data, that same basic approve/disapprove split transcends all demographic categories.
“So he’s sitting in kind of a sweet spot, which seems to be that he hasn’t really irritated ... any of the groups that we are sort of looking at here — men, women, Republicans, Democrats, younger folks, older folks,” Andersen said.
Scott won’t necessarily carry all those blocs on Election Day. Democrats, according to the poll, and people between the ages of 18 and 44, are more likely to vote for Hallquist than they are for Scott.
But Scott has managed to eat into much of Hallquist’s natural base. According to the poll data, 26 percent of Democrats say they intend to vote for the Republican incumbent. Virtually no Republicans, however, say they intend to cross party lines and vote for Hallquist.
Hallquist’s trouble with independents is nearly as severe — 36 percent of independents say they’d vote for Scott, if the election were held on the day they were surveyed; only 7 percent said they’d vote for Hallquist.
Ted Kohn, a political science professor at the Norwich University, says those number bode well for Scott on Nov. 6.
“He looks like he is a moderate Republican that has pretty firm Republican support and can draw Democrats and independents to him,” Kohn said.
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll bodes well for other statewide incumbents too:
- Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders leads Republican Lawrence Zupan by 41 points.
- Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is ahead of Republican challenger Anya Tynio by 37 points.
- Attorney General T.J. Donovan enjoys a 39-point lead over Republican Janssen Willhoit.
- Jim Condos has a more than 2-to-1 advantage over Republican H. Brooke Paige.
- Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman has a 17-point lead over Republican House Minority Leader Don Turner.
In a year where voters nationally are applying increased scrutiny to veteran political officeholders, Andersen says in Vermont, 2018 is the year of the incumbent.
“Everybody’s safe,” Andersen said. “Everybody’s safe.”
Andersen stresses that’s only if, of course, the poll data are accurate.
If they are, then Scott’s apparent invulnerability comes despite overwhelming distaste among Vermonters with the president that Scott shares his party with.
Only 24 percent of Vermonters say they approve of the job Donald Trump is doing — 20 points less than the national average in recent Gallup poll.
But whether it’s by criticizing the president’s immigration policy or expressing reservations over his Supreme Court nominee, UVM political science professor Lisa Holmes says Scott seems to have girded himself against that anti-Trump sentiment.
“That is another thing that he’s done … quite well, is being the most high-profile Republican in the state of course, while not getting associated with an incredibly unpopular Republican president here in Vermont,” Holmes said. “My sense is that he’s perceived very much as an old-school New England Republican, and he has stepped out against Trump.”
Rich Clark, a political science professor at Castleton University, and the pollster who oversaw the VPR -Vermont PBS Poll, says that made an uphill climb for Hallquist even steeper.
“And the Democrats, they choose as a hero those Republicans who are willing to stand up to the president and not follow suit,” Clark said.
Twenty-two percent of likely voters surveyed say they still haven’t decided who’ll win their vote for governor. But Clark says those undecideds would have to break entirely for Hallquist for her to have a chance. Based on the other data in the poll, Clark says there’s no reason to think that will happen.
More from VPR: Exploring The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll Results With Rich Clark
Andersen says the poll data indicate another electoral weakness for Hallquist — male voters. While Scott and Hallquist are essentially tied among female voters, Scott wins the male vote by a two-to-one margin.
“What Hallquist has is a gender gap, right?” Andersen said. “Scott’s got 50 percent of men saying that if the election were held today, they would vote for him. But only a quarter of men say that for Hallquist.”
And the electoral vulnerabilities some political observers had anticipated for Scott, namely his evolving position on gun control, have not materialized.
Republicans, the voter bloc with whom Scott would presumably face the stiffest blowback for his support of new restrictions on gun ownership, favor the incumbent by a margin of 71 percent to 3 percent.
“People were concerned that his evolving position on guns and gun safety … might hurt him,” Andersen said. “I don’t see any evidence in this poll that he’s facing any sustained blowback.”
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll also gauged public opinion on a number of economic and social issues.
Survey respondents were asked, “Which single expense creates the most financial stress in your life,” and “housing costs” was, by a wide margin, the most popular answer, with about a third of Vermonters saying rent or housing is the biggest financial stressor.
Taxes, at 18 percent, were a relatively distant second, about even with health care, at 15 percent.
Andersen says the results suggest voters aren’t as concerned about tax burdens as Scott’s campaign rhetoric might suggest.
“My guess is that folks in Chittenden County would plunk for finding a way to reduce housing costs, over finding a way to reduce property taxes, even though they’d love both,” Andersen said.
Vermonters by and large also appear willing to assume new tax burdens in exchange for a public program that would guarantee new parents 12 weeks of paid leave after the birth of a newborn.
The poll question asked whether people would favor or oppose “a payroll tax of roughly $70 per person a year, if the revenue were to provide new parents with up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 70 percent of their salary upon the birth of a child.”
Forty-six percent of Vermonters say they’d favor a payroll tax for that purpose, while 34 percent said they’d oppose it. Support was higher among women — 46 percent to 28 percent — though a plurality of men said they favor the concept as well.
“We have folks saying, ‘Here is a tax that, just hearing about it now, sounds like it’s a pretty good idea to us,’” Andersen said.
The poll also sought to gauge whether Vermonters think racism is a problem in their state. A majority of residents — 53 percent — say they think racism is either a “big problem” or a “somewhat big problem.” Forty-three percent say they think racism is a “small problem” or “no problem at all.”
Norwich political science professor Ted Kohn says he found the percentage of people who see racism as a problem to be “fairly low, actually.”
He was also surprised at how few people said they had “personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a Vermont workplace or institution.” Twenty-six percent of people said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in those locales; 70 percent said they had not. Nearly twice as many women as men answered that poll question in the affirmative.
“Those people who say they’re experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, that was pretty low,” Kohn said. “And that’s in the middle of the #MeToo movement, that’s after the Kavanaugh hearings,” Kohn said.
Kohn says Vermonters’ answers on questions related to social issues reveal something deeper about the electorate here.
“I think a lot of Vermonters portray themselves as being absolutely part of the insurgency, you know, part of the resistance to Donald Trump, part of Bernie Sanders’ land,” Kohn said. “But when it comes to asking individuals about what they are witnessing and seeing and care about on a day-to-day basis sitting around their dining table, they’re much more middle-of-the-road than you might think.”
Andersen is less surprised by the percentage of Vermonters who see racism as a problem.
“I think that race in Vermont is a really complicated thing to talk about, and I think it’s a really complicated thing to talk about because we’re really a very, very white state,” Andersen said. “There is racism in this state in all kinds of ways, but it’s not as highly visible in states that have a larger racial minority population. There’s not that immediate rubbing up against friction.”
The poll also asked Vermonters where they stand on the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The poll began surveying people on the day before Kavanaugh was officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Twenty-eight percent of Vermonters said they thought the Kavanaugh nomination “was the right choice” for the Supreme Court. Fifty-four percent said they thought he was a “poor choice.”
The results, however, break far differently along party lines. Seventy-one percent of Republicans said they thought Kavanaugh was the right choice; 88 percent of Democrats said he was a poor choice.
“The big takeaway in Vermont on Kavanaugh is that Vermonters have taken a side, and it’s very much following their party identification,” said Holmes, who’s currently working on a project about how the politicization of judicial appointments affects the attitudes of judicial nominees. “Trump’s unpopularity in Vermont hasn’t affected Kavanaugh’s support, at least among Republicans.”
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters questions to learn about their thoughts on key issues and how they feel about candidates for statewide office. Explore the full results of the October 2018 poll here.