The 2016 gubernatorial election is still more than a year away, but a public poll is shedding some light on how voters view the candidates in the early going. And at this stage at least, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott enjoys a distinct advantage in some key electoral variables.
It's been less than a year since the last statewide election, and the 2016 campaign is barely underway. But Rich Clark, director of the Castleton Polling Institute, says it seemed like a good time for his shop to jump-start a political conversation.
"It's going to be an open seat, and a very contentious election, we imagined. And we thought it was about time to weigh in, check the pulse of the public — see what they thought of the current round of candidates, or potential candidates," says Clark.
The random survey of more than 600 Vermont residents, funded by Castleton University, didn't set out to see who people are planning to vote for. Rather it seeks to gauge candidates' name recognition and favorability — variables that will be key to determining who among the field will go on to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"We're likely to see a very competitive Democratic primary. We see some candidates bunching up there," Clark says. "And we see a lieutenant governor who starts in a very enviable position."
Indeed, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott emerged from the poll as a clear frontrunner in the Republican primary. More than three-quarters of Vermonters know who he is, according to the survey. Perhaps more importantly, 70 percent of those who've heard of him hold him in favorable regard.
Even among self-identified Democrats, 59 percent have a favorable opinion of Scott, while only 15 percent view him unfavorably.
Former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, Scott's only announced candidate in the GOP gubernatorial primary, says he isn't sweating the findings, despite the fact that the poll suggests nearly 80 percent of Vermonters have no idea who he is.
"You know, obviously it's so early in the process, I didn't take too much from it," Lisman says.
Among those poll respondents that have heard of Lisman, only about a third have a favorable opinion.
Lisman, however, says his low name recognition gives him plenty of chances to make a good first impression. Among people who had heard of Lisman, a plurality — 42 percent — said they have no opinion of him, positive or negative.
"And the primary's not until the end of the next summer," Lisman says. "We have plenty of time."
Democrats will see similar opportunities to win over undecided voters in the coming months. House Speaker Shap Smith enjoys the greatest name recognition among announced Democrats — 61 percent have heard of him. And he was the lone Democrat to clear the 50 percent favorability threshold.
"The poll result that matters is the one in November of 2016," Smith says. "And I'm going to spend time between now and then meeting Vermonters and making sure that I get a chance to know them, and that they get a chance to know me."
His competitor, former Windsor County senator Matt Dunne, wasn't far behind in name recognition — 57 percent know who he is. But only 39 percent of those who have heard of him view him favorably. And more than 40 percent of people know who he is, but have no opinion about him one way or the other.
According to Clark, the results suggest Dunne the campaign has "more empty canvas upon which to paint."
It's a sentiment shared by Dunne campaign manager Nick Charyk.
"I see an opportunity there," Charyk says of the 42 percent of survey respondents that haven't yet heard of Dunne. "We're at the beginning stages of an extended dialogue with Vermont voters."
Former Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, the other announced Democrat in the field, is another candidate who has yet to make a decisive impression with voters. Only 38 percent of poll respondents know who Minter is. Of those, nearly half have no opinion of her yet.
"Even more so that Matt Dunne, Minter has a large segment of her party and the general public who are waiting to form a nascent opinion of her during the campaign," Clark says in a post on the Castleton Polling Institute blog.
Clark says that at this stage of the game, that's not necessarily a bad place for Minter to be.
"Then, you chart your own destiny at that point I guess, from the campaign's perspective," Clark says.
Minter's campaign manager, Sarah McCall, says the poll results are affirming, especially given that the survey wrapped up before Minter announced her candidacy.
"We certainly were encouraged," McCall says. "We have a long campaign ahead and I know that Sue is looking forward to getting out there on the campaign trail to talk to Vermonters about the issues that are facing Vermont."
Pomfret businessman Scott Milne, who nearly defeated Shumlin last November, was second only to Scott in name recognition in the poll, and has favorability among Republicans is close to 70 percent. Milne says he hasn't decided yet whether he'll run in 2016.
The poll also tested name recognition of former Republican State Auditor Randy Brock and the GOP Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who has decided against a statewide run in 2016.
Brock, who says he'll announce his intentions in the near future, had about the same name recognition as Shap Smith — 60 percent of voters know who he is. With the exception of Lisman, however, Brock's overall favorables were the lowest in the field.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. Clark says that margin goes up as the pool of respondents goes down, meaning the favorable/unfavorable numbers for candidates like Lisman, for instance, "are too small to give anything more than a passing glance" at where the electorate is at.
He says this early in process, it's premature to count anyone out.
"So I don't think there's any reason to suggest that if you had low name recognition or low favorability at this point that that's the ballgame," Clark says.