The state’s primary elections are about three weeks away, but many Vermonters are not yet tuned into statewide politics, according to the new VPR - Vermont PBS Poll. However, they are concerned about pocketbook issues here in Vermont, such as the economy and taxes.
The poll shows that the candidates running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary remain relatively unknown.
Four people are on the ballot for the Democratic nomination for governor. But Joan Forbes, of Middlebury, recognized just one.
“Well, I saw the youngster from Bristol on TV last evening,” Forbes said in an interview with VPR last week.
That would be 14-year-old Ethan Sonneborn, whose status as the youngest person in the race has gained him quite a bit of news coverage.
Has Forbes heard of the other candidates?
“Not really, no,” she said.
The survey of 603 Vermonters was conducted by Braun Research under the direction of Rich Clark, professor of political science at Castleton University and former director of the Castleton Polling Institute.
And the statewide poll indicates the Democratic primary candidates have some work to do.
Poll results show that Christine Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, was the most well-known of the four Democratic gubernatorial candidates on the ballot — 41 percent of those surveyed recognized her name.
Clark said that will likely help Hallquist in what is expected to be a low-turnout primary.
Candidates running with "a single issue, who’ve got some motivated voters behind them, are going to do the best,” Clark said. “And beyond that, it’s having name recognition. So in the Democratic primary, I think you’d like to be where Christine Hallquist is as opposed to her competitors.”
The other Democratic candidates on the ballot — Sonnenborn, Brenda Siegel and James Ehlers — remain relatively unknown, in the 25-to-29 percent range of name recognition, well within the poll's 4-percent margin of error.
Essex-Orleans Sen. John Rodgers, a Democrat, is running as a write-in candidate. He has a similar ranking in name recognition to those Democrats on the ballot.
“They’re all grouped in that low-awareness area, … Hallquist being the only one that breaks out,” Clark said.
The news cycle is dominated by the national politics, especially coverage of President Donald Trump, Clark said, so Vermonters don’t seem to be paying much attention to statewide races.
“Our data shows that they’re not, really,” Clark said. “It seems that the national news has really taken all the oxygen out of the room, that people really haven’t focused in on state issues.”
Vermonters surveyed cited the economy as a top concern, followed by the opioid epidemic. And that finding was backed up by interviews with several of those surveyed.
Joan Forbes, of Middlebury, said she’s living on Social Security and has a small business.
“Also [we] have apartment buildings, and the taxes are just outrageous that we have to pay, the school taxes for the apartments,” she said.
Donald Horenstein, a retired financial analyst from Shelburne, said Vermont’s economy could be improved through investments in health care, education and paying down state pension liabilities.
“By elevating Vermont’s quality of life, that in itself, would act as a major inducement for people from out-of-state locales, both within the United States and foreign locales, who want to live in Vermont,” he said.
Horenstein recently turned 90, and said he’s getting more liberal the older he gets. So like many surveyed in the VPR - Vermont PBS Poll, he doesn’t think much of Trump.
“I think he’s destroying our country ... in so many ways,” Horenstein said.
The poll showed that just 28 percent of Vermonters approve of Trump’s job performance. And, not surprisingly, there was a sharp partisan divide. Among Republicans, 76 percent approve of the president, while 91 percent of Democrats disapprove.
Incumbent Gov. Phil Scott enjoyed a 43 percent approval rating overall. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said they disapproved of Scott's performance, and 29 percent said they weren’t sure.
Thomas Roland, who lives in Burlington, describes himself as a staunch Democrat — but he said Scott is doing a good job.
“I might vote for Scott because of his character and the things that he’s trying to do. Nobody is going to do everything for everyone. And Scott has courage,” Roland said. “And I just — the more I talk about it, the more I think I might support him because of what he did with gun legislation.”
Scott supported Vermont’s first major gun control bills; the legislation required universal background checks for gun purchases and imposed a ban on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
Scott's reversal on the gun issue has drawn challenger Keith Stern into the GOP primary. Political scientist Clark said Stern enjoys the support of a small, but potentially highly motivated group.
“We see this as one issue that’s working against – among Republicans – that's working against the governor,” Clark said.
However, the poll also showed that 67 percent of those surveyed favored the new gun legislation.
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters questions to learn where they stand on key issues and how they feel about candidates for statewide office. Explore the full results of the July 2018 poll here.