What was it I said? Oh, yeah…
I think Sue Minter is our next governor.
Yup, that’s it.
In my partial defense, I got just about everything else right: the breakdown of the new Legislature, the failure of the Republican ticket below the top line. But my prediction on the biggest race in the state couldn’t have been more wrong. I went further than most in predicting a Sue Minter victory, but I don’t think anybody — not even Republicans — saw a near-double-digit win for Scott. Heck, Vermont Pundit Emeritus Eric Davis said it was “too close to call.”
I warned you I wasn’t very good at predictions. I hope I’m a little better at analysis. Here goes.
After an epic-length campaign lasting a year and a half… after the spending of insane amounts of money by Vermont standards… after a unified Democratic homestretch with a healthy assist from Bernie Sanders… after a tsunami of outside money and endless TV ads and mailers… we might as well have had no campaign at all. The fundamentals going in — Phil Scott’s personal popularity, fatigue with the Shumlin administration, and Vermonters’ clear pattern of switching parties when there’s a vacancy in the corner office — were the deciding factors at the end.
Here we bump up against the inherent myopia of the Political Observer. We are a small group of people. We follow politics almost obsessively. We magnify the importance of every twist and turn along the way.
The vast majority of voters don’t do that. They don’t consume much news coverage or read Voter Guides or attend rallies or watch debates. (They sure don’t read my blog.) Their closest brush to politics is driving by a honk-and-wave.
This is not to say they’re stupid; they just have priorities. Their lives are full and complicated. Their brain power is focused elsewhere. Many of them vote straight party ticket, so studying candidates and issues is unnecessary. Others make up their minds on vague impressions, often of personalities instead of policy. Which isn’t the worst way to make a decision, honestly.
Us folks in the Observer class have a fundamentally different outlook on politics. “Different” is the value-free term for it; I could also say “skewed” or even “warped.”
So we have a result that could have been foreseen — in fact, foreseen more clearly — more than a year ago, before all the noise cluttered our senses and sensibilities.
What’s that truism — voters tend to pick the guy they’d rather have a beer with? That’s Phil Scott, right there.
I do think it was more about his own stature than about any expansion of Republican appeal. The rest of the GOP’s statewide ticket crashed and burned like usual, and they failed to make significant inroads into the Democrats’ lopsided majorities in the House and Senate. (In fact, the Republicans seem to have lost a couple of Senate seats; I haven’t figured out the House breakdown yet, but it’ll be pretty close to what it is now.)
Those are not the hallmarks of an ideological “change election.”
Phil Scott outperformed Randy Brock by 25,000 votes. He outperformed Donald Trump by an astounding 68,000 — an almost two-to-one margin! On the Democratic side, Sue Minter underperformed Hillary Clinton by 38,000. That’s a hell of a lot of ticket-splitting.
Well, not ticket-splitting so much as a hell of a lot of voters going Democratic EXCEPT for Phil Scott. It was a personal victory for the most personable politician in Vermont.
We might have seen it coming, except we paid too much attention to all the little stuff that the voters never even noticed.
Now comes the challenge. Phil Scott will have a lot of trouble implementing his agenda, whatever it is, with Democrats in control of the Legislature. And if we’ve just given the Republicans full control of the federal government, then Scott will be facing likely cutbacks in federal payments to the states.
Especially to deep blue states.
That could make it a lot harder to balance the budget without big cutbacks.
To be a success as Governor, Phil Scott will need all his self-proclaimed skill as a conciliator. He’ll need to balance his conservative instincts with his awareness of Vermont’s fundamental blueness. And he’d better hope our new overlords in Washington don’t slash taxes, decimate the federal budget and let the financial class run roughshod. Because if that happens, Vermont will become a much more difficult place to govern.