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What Just Happened? We Ask Eric Davis

Taylor Dobbs
Gov. Peter Shumlin has said the margin of victory in Tuesday's election was disappointing.

The margin of victory appears to be about 2,100 votes. With all Vermont precincts now reporting, the Associated Press says Governor Peter Shumlin has defeated Republican challenger Scott Milne by that razor thin margin, about 46 percent to 45 percent, and with neither candidate garnering a 50 percent majority, the Vermont legislature will have to officially choose the winner in January.

This gubernatorial race has left a lot of folks asking saying, “what just happened?”

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb put that question to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

Wertlieb: So I ask you, what just happened here?

Davis: The election turned into a referendum on Peter Shumlin.  A lot of Vermonters decided for one reason or another either they wanted to send him a message or in many instances they did not want him serving another term.

Wertlieb: But what about the pre-election polls? Didn’t they show Governor Shumlin with a sizeable lead? And if so, why didn’t those polls reflect what actually happened when it came time for voting?

Davis: Well, I think there are two things going on. First of all, the last public poll that we had, which was done by the Castleton Polling Institute, was done about a month before Election Day and showed Shumlin with a lead of 12 or 13 points. My sense is that in the last two or three weeks of the campaign Scott Milne’s message improved and he raised enough money to start advertising. The second thing is, polls are only a snapshot of what public opinion is on the day they were taken. My sense is that as voters thought more about this race, more and more people decided that they just had reservations about Peter Shumlin.

Wertlieb: The one big issue that Gov. Shumlin has gotten behind is single-payer health care. Do you think that one issue though might have been the one that he had the most trouble with, in the sense that there was the troubled roll out of Vermont Health Connect, and he has not yet said definitively how he would pay for it?

Davis: My sense is that single-payer health care may have actually made more of a difference in the Lieutenant Governor’s race where the Progressive-Democratic candidate Dean Corren campaigned heavily on the issue. On health care, my sense is that it was Vermont Health Connect more than single-payer that ended up hurting Gov. Shumlin. The troubled roll out of Vermont Health Connect, the problems with the website, some of the other customer services issues that have been associated with that, and concern among Vermont voters, both those who participated in Vermont Health Connect and those who don’t, about whether the state really has the administrative and technical capacity to manage a large-scale health benefits program.

Wertlieb: What about the defeat of Mike Fisher, who was the chair of the House Committee on Health Care. He was very much behind single-payer, does that indicate some skepticism among Vermont voters on single-payer?

Davis: That could because he was one of the districts whom the House Republicans targeted. There was a vigorous campaign against single-payer in that district and it was funded by some outside money that came into the district also. It is interesting to note though, in that district, Addison-4, the Republican who ended up defeating Mike Fisher, a man named Fred Baser, is a well-known local figure in Bristol. He’s the town moderator, he’s been on many local boards and committees. And he is actually not the candidate who campaigned especially aggressively on single-payer. The strong opponent to single-payer was a candidate named Valerie Mullin, and she ended up finishing fourth among four major party candidates.

Wertlieb: I have to ask about Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano, was he a spoiler, in some ways the Ralph Nader of Vermont in this race, in relation to Scott Milne? Or is it wrong to assume that all of those votes, about 4 percent that went to Feliciano, would have gone to Milne?

Davis: It’s very difficult in the absence of good polling data to determine who Feliciano’s voters would have supported had his name not been on the ballot, so I don’t like using the word spoiler in these circumstances. To me, the message of the Feliciano campaign is, if the Republicans are serious about winning the governorship, they have to get united behind one candidate early in the campaign. This year there was a Republican primary, things weren’t settled until August, and that didn’t give Scott Milne much time as the Republican nominee to be organized and get ready for a general election campaign. So the various factions in the Republican party need to come together behind one candidate and reach that consensus early.

Wertlieb: Prof. Davis, I’m going to ask you give us some insight into what Gov. Shumlin might need to do to recover from this close victory. Now, he didn’t lose, he’s going to be governor again, but is it more his tone, his personality, or do you think he needs to back away from some of his more ambitious agenda, like single-payer health care to get the confidence of Vermonters back?

Davis: I think he needs to do four things. The first is to spend a lot more time in Vermont. I believe Scott Milne’s criticism that he was spending a lot of time out of state, in part, campaigning and raising money for the Democratic Governors Association did hit the mark with some voters.

Secondly, I think there were some issues that have come up in the last few months that Shumlin really needs to devote a lot of attention too. One is getting Vermont Health Connect to work, both the website and all the other things associated with it. Second, is addressing the issues in the Agency of Human Services, getting new permanent management in place in that agency, addressing some of the issues in the Department for Children and Families.

Third, is getting the state budget in order and that may become a more salient issue if the new Republican Congress ends up cutting federal support for state governments in areas like transportation and health care.

And finally, working with the legislature to come up with a solution to the education finance and governance issues. There’s a lot of concern about property taxes in Vermont. House Speaker Shap Smith has a working group already working on this issue, and I think the demand for the legislature to do something about it in this biennium is going to be very high. If Shumlin can work on those four issues, then I think he can demonstrate competence and get Vermonters more confident in his leadership and then after that point, come up again with the issue, talk more about health care reform, and the steps that would happen after Vermont Health Connect.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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.
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