The evidence is unmistakable. Campaign press releases flooding the inbox. Candidates speaking wherever they can find two constituents to rub together. Campaign buses and caravans clogging the highways*. Candidate interviews all over the electronic media. Debates and forums seemingly every night.
* The candidates could substantially reduce their carbon footprint if they’d only carpool to joint appearances. I can see it now: Phil Scott is, of course, the driver. Bruce Lisman is offering fuel-saving tips and checking GasBuddy for the best place to fill up. Matt Dunne is babbling about driverless technology and electric cars. Sue Minter is pointing out how smooth the roads are. Peter Galbraith is in the back, complaining loudly, and nobody’s paying much attention.
… And Brooke Paige is lagging on the roadside, riding a scooter and shouting “Wait for me!”
Yes, the campaign is in high gear. It happened sometime between the end of the legislative session and last week: all at once, we went from “there’s plenty of time” to “Oh my God, it’s almost here!”
Time’s a-wastin’. It’s been about six weeks since the Legislature adjourned — the traditional kickoff of campaign season. And it’s only about six more weeks until Primary Day, August 9.
Which is the earliest primary date in, well, probably forever. Until 2010, our primary was traditionally held after Labor Day. This year, it moved from late August to early in the month, roughly two weeks earlier. The reason was to allow more time for recounts and disputes, and still get ballots out in time for absentees (notably overseas military personnel) to make their votes count.
The effect has been profound, especially in a year of such intense competition. We thought the early primary might have an effect on turnout — and it will. But its intensification of the primary season is more of a surprise.
The next six weeks will be a test of organization, perhaps more than of a candidate’s appeal. In a low-turnout primary, candidates have to generate enough enthusiasm to overcome primary apathy, and pound the pavement to get their voters to the polls.
And this will definitely be a low-turnout primary. In a late-August primary in 2010, a competitive field of five Democratic candidates for governor drew a combined 73,576 votes. Peter Shumlin won that primary with only 18,276 votes. In November, by comparison, Shumlin got 119,543. Democrats were energized that year by Jim Douglas’ retirement, which gave them their best shot at the governorship since Howard Dean stepped down.
Compressed campaign, small electorate. If a candidate starts getting any kind of edge, it’ll be difficult for a competitor to mount a comeback.
The effect of the short primary season may be even more intense and unpredictable in down-ballot races. For instance: the retirement of my state rep, Tony Klein, has sparked a five-way battle for the Democratic nomination. Those candidates have little time to make an impression. There’s virtually no media coverage (aside from a boilerplate article in the Times Argus that made no attempt to cover the issues), no available advertising media beyond lawn signs, and, as one candidate told me, nobody even organizing debates or forums.
The result: a wide-open, unpredictable race that might see a lot of voters casting their ballots on a whim, with little to no knowledge of the candidates.
Two additional weeks might make little difference in the East Montpelier-Middlesex district. But it couldn’t hurt.
Maybe it’s time to abandon the fiction about the campaign season starting after the Legislature adjourns. (Or, if you’re Phil Scott, maybe it’s time for an earlier adjournment.)
Maybe not. But it feels like we’re in an unprecedented crazy season for state politics.