A handful of numbers, signifying not much

Today’s big political news is yesterday’s release of a new poll from the Castleton Polling Institute. It measured name recognition and favorability for the declared gubernatorial candidates. The headline number, that Phil Scott has 77% name recognition, is not a surprise at all. He’s the only one in the field who’s run statewide general-election campaigns, and he’s done so each of the last three times. He’s also held numerous high-profile events, such as his Job For A Day Tour and the annual Wheels for Warmth charity drive. It’d be a shock if he wasn’t the most widely recognized.

(The importance of statewide campaigns in building familiarity can be seen by Scott Milne’s very strong 74% and Randy Brock’s respectable 60%.)

Overall, it’s so early in the campaign that the poll is largely meaningless except as a baseline for future polls. That’s exactly the word chief pollster Rich Clark used in characterizing the survey; he downplayed “any sort of predictive value.” Indeed, there’s nothing here that a good candidate can’t overcome in the 11 months until the primary. But hey, the goat’s been slaughtered, so let’s read the entrails.

To me, the biggest single surprise was that Scott has “only” a 16-point edge on Shap Smith. Mr. Speaker obviously gets in the news a lot, as the most impactful legislative leader (just the truth, John), but a lot of voters don’t follow state politics except during campaigns. When Smith was considering a run for governor, I thought he’d have a lot of work to do simply introducing himself to the state. Guess not.

Of course, familiarity can breed contempt, and most observers thought Smith would be hamstrung by association with the Legislature and the Shumlin administration. The poll brings reassuring news on that front; 52% have a favorable opinion of him, 21% have no opinion, and a relatively low 16% have a “very unfavorable” view. Considering all the baggage he could have been saddled with, his numbers are actually pretty good.

Okay, let’s take the rest of the candidates one at a time.

Phil Scott. The numbers reflect the obvious: he’s the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination, and the early front-runner in the general campaign. As befits someone with an earned reputation as a nice guy — and someone who, as Lieutenant Governor, has never had to take an unpopular stance — he’s got high name recognition, high favorables, and extremely low unfavorables. The combination makes him the front-runner; if he’s going to be defeated, opinions about him will have to change.

This is likely to happen to some extent in the rough-and-tumble of an actual campaign. But Vermont voters tend to latch onto certain personalities regardless of party or policy. If they like somebody, be it Jim Douglas or Bernie Sanders, they tend to keep on electing him/her. The difference with Scott is that he’s stepping into a different role — leader instead of passenger — but being a Nice Guy is a very powerful thing in Vermont.

Also, the poll results are not so good for his Republican rival.

Bruce Lisman. After all his travels around the state, and all his (supposedly) high-profile work with Campaign for Vermont, he finished dead last in name recognition with only 21%. That has to be a bit of a shock to him. It reinforces my belief that Lisman is well-known in certain circles — politicians, media, business types, centrist and moderate Republican do-gooders — and a blank slate outside of that.

Of course, as chief pollster Rick Clark pointed out, Lisman declared his candidacy while the poll was being conducted. His name recognition went from 16% before his announcement to 26% after. Even the latter figure is not great.

At this stage of a campaign, being a blank slate isn’t all bad. Lisman will have the chance to introduce himself to voters. He has plenty of time and buckets of momey. He still faces a tough uphill battle to catch up to someone as well-known and popular as Phil Scott. Especially since the organized Republican Party can be expected to put all its support behind Scott. (And especially since, as far as can be told, the two men aren’t all that different policy-wise.)

The Castleton survey also measured support for Scott Milne, Randy Brock, and Heidi Scheuermann; at this point, the two men seem more likely to run for Lieutenant Governor, and Scheuermann has made it clear she isn’t running for either office, so I’ll skip over them for now.

The results were kind of similar for the other two Democrats in the race. Matt Dunne’s name recognition was at 57%, which ain’t bad for someone who’s been off the statewide political stage since 2010. In terms of favorability, the vast majority of respondents don’t have strong views on Dunne; only 8% see him “very favorably” and only 4$ see him “very unfavorably.” He begins the long campaign with a respectable “Hey, I know that guy” factor, and a pretty blank slate in terms of building a positive image.

Sue Minter, meanwhile, is blank slate all over. Her name recognition is at an unimpressive 38%. (As with Lisman, her announcement came while the poll was being taken, so her numbers improved in the later stages of polling. For both, the next survey will provide a better measure.) She starts from a good position on favorability; she gets 39% “very” or “somewhat” favorable, 48% no opinion, and a mere 13% “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable. As has been pointed out already, being a blank slate at this point in the campaign has its benefits. She’ll have to establish an identity, but she’ll be able to do it on her own terms — assuming her Democratic rivals refrain from negative campaign, which I believe is a safe assumption.

In the Democratic race, Shap Smith appears to be the early front-runner. But that and a buck-fitty will buy you a cup of coffee.

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