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The history of Vermont’s open primary and a lesson in 'crossover'

Peter Miller
Vermont's primary is right around the corner, and perhaps the most successful crossover candidate in Vermont political history was Tunbridge dairy farmer Fred Tuttle.

Vermont’s primary election is coming right up. We're one of about a dozen states that holds an open primary. What exactly does this mean and what’s the history of Vermont’s open primary system?

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel for some of the answers. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So let's get started with the history of the open primary in Vermont. How did it get started? And why was this type of system used?

Bob Kinzel: Mitch, it's really interesting. Lawmakers in Vermont started discussing it right at the beginning of the 20th century. Because at that time, most political candidates were chosen at a party convention or a party caucus. But in 1915, Vermont lawmakers passed a bill creating a direct voter primary, and voters gave their support to the idea on Town Meeting Day in 1916. It's been used ever since. And the proposal was specifically designed to allow voters to select which party's primary they wanted to participate in. Secretary of State Jim Condos says this was a very important decision right from the start.

"You know, Vermont is fiercely independent, and they didn't want to be boxed in. And that goes for our Legislature, as well as with the voters themselves," he said.

Condos told me that he strongly supports this open primary system, because he thinks it increases voter participation by offering voters more choices.

So Vermont lawmakers decide to go with this open primary system. I'm wondering how other states run their primary elections.

Mitch, there are all sorts of different systems out there. It is really incredible. So we've got about a dozen states like Vermont that have an open primary — anybody can vote in any primary.

Then there are the so-called closed primaries. Now these take place in states that have party registration, Vermont does not have that. So only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary in these states. And the same thing is true for the Republicans. And in the states, independent voters don't get to vote in the primary at all.

Then we have some states that have partially closed primaries. They have party registration, but they allow independent voters to choose which party primary they want to vote in.

And then we have the so-called top-two primary. This is used in California and the state of Washington. Now, in these cases, all of the candidates from all of the parties combined run together, and the top two candidates make it to the general election.

Linda Fowler is a professor of government, emerita at Dartmouth College. She says Vermont's political parties are not very happy with the state's open primary system.

"But voters like it because they are suspicious of parties. And they like the idea that they're in control of who the choices are going to be in November," she said.

Primary elections tend to have much lower turnout rates than a general election. That's sort of intuitive. But the outcome of the races in the primaries really do have a big impact on who gets elected in November, don't they?

Mitch, that's very true. Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson points out that the winner of several hotly contested Democratic primaries this year is very likely to be the candidate who wins in November.

"Well, nobody wants to prejudge a general election," he said. "And obviously, the voters ultimately decide. But you would have to be naïve not to know that in, for instance, Vermont — a predominantly blue state — that the nominee coming out of certain races, the Democratic nominee, is the odds-on favorite to win the general election. So really, where the competition is, where the key choice made by voters is, is the primary as opposed to the general election."

And because Vermont has this open primary system, Bob, it means that some Democrats could vote in the Republican primary; Republican voters could vote in the Democratic primary. Does it happen very often, though?

Well, Mitch, it does from time to time. But professor Dickinson says it really takes a well-organized effort to have much of an impact on a specific race. And this leads us to perhaps the most successful crossover candidate in Vermont political history, and that would be Tunbridge dairy farmer Fred Tuttle.

Fred Tuttle, left, and Jack McMullen squared off in a now-notorious debate during the 1998 Republican primary.
VPR file/Tim Johnson, VPR
Fred Tuttle, left, and Jack McMullen squared off in a now-notorious debate during the 1998 Republican primary.

Here's a quick historical recap. The year was 1998 and Sen. Patrick Leahy he was up for reelection. Republican Jack McMullen — a very successful businessman who had recently moved to Vermont from Massachusetts — decided to seek the Republican nomination. This presented film director John O'Brien with a situation that he could not resist.

Now, O'Brien had made a fictional movie called Man With a Plan, where dairy farmer Fred Tuttle ran against Vermont's incumbent U.S. House member. Fred, in the movie said he ran because the job in Congress was less work than being a dairy farmer, and it paid a lot more.

More from Vermont Public: Cow Teats & How To Say 'Calais': Reflecting On The 1998 Tuttle-McMullen Debate

So, O'Brien encouraged Fred Tuttle to run in the Republican U.S. Senate primary against McMullen using the movie as his guide. The two candidates met in a debate on September 3, 1998, on Vermont Public Radio. I happened to be the moderator that night. Fred Tuttle sat just to my left, and I could see that he had a list of towns on his notepad. I had no idea what he was going to do with it. And he handed the list to Jack McMullen.

Fred Tuttle: "Jack, can you read these Vermont towns?"

Jack McMullen: "Sure. Montpelier, Berlin, Barre, Charlotte, Dover, Calais [Cal-LASS]."

Fred Tuttle: "What was that one?"

Jack McMullen: "Calais [Cal-LACE]?"

Fred Tuttle: "Calais. Calais. Yeah, nobody can pronounce that right. Okay, yeah."

Mitch, I knew at that moment that Fred Tuttle had a real chance to win this race. What better way to highlight that Jack McMullen was from Massachusetts than to have him mispronounce Calais.

Bob, it's such a moment. I love the fact too, that you were the moderator of that debate. Sitting there, you must have been absolutely stunned when those questions were asked. But that wasn't it. There was more. In fact, in that debate, Fred Tuttle asked one of the most famous questions ever in a Vermont political debate. Please remind us how that went down.

Fred Tuttle: "Jack, this is a milk production question. How many teats does a Holstein have; and how many does a Jersey have?"

Jack McMullen: "How many what, Fred?"

Fred Tuttle: "Teats. Teats does a cow have."

Jack McMullen: "Well, let's see. I took some lessons the other day. I'm thinking about six if I'm not mistaken."

Fred Tuttle: "About four on a Jersey cow. All cows have four teats."

Jack McMullen: "Four? Ok."

Fred Tuttle: "Sometimes they're born with five but the veterinary have to take one off so they can milk in a milking machine. Cuz the milking machines are all set up for just four teats."

Jack McMullen: "Ok, well, that's interesting to learn."

Fred Tuttle: "Yeah."

Mitch, what a moment that was. There was huge national demand for the audio of that debate. It was really just a remarkable evening.

Was there crossover voting in this primary? I think the answer is almost certainly yes. And here's why. In a normal year, about twice as many people vote in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary, that's a rough estimate that holds up pretty well over the last 30 or 35 years.

In 1998, the number of people who voted in the Republican primary was three times as large as the number of people who voted in the Democratic primary — three times as many! That never happens. So I think it's reasonable to conclude that a sizable number of Democrats crossed over and voted for Fred Tuttle, and he won the nomination. And then, Fred Tuttle went on to endorse Sen. Leahy during VPR's general election debate.

Mitch, I do want to mention that I think Jack McMullen deserves a lot of credit for participating in the VPR debate. He didn't have to come. It was a week before the primary election. He could have skipped it. Yet he showed up. And that really showed a lot of character on Jack McMullen's part.

Bob, I so appreciate this walk down memory lane for that incredible moment in Vermont political history, but also this look ahead to what's happening very soon.

Vermont's primary election is coming up on Tuesday, Aug. 9. And you should contact your town clerk very soon if you're interested in getting an early ballot this year.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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