Results from the first head-to-head poll of the 2016 race for governor have arrived. And the VPR Poll, conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute, shows Republican Phil Scott and Democrat Sue Minter locked in a statistical dead heat with just under three weeks until Election Day.
The general-population poll of 650 Vermonters – it used both cell phones and landlines – was conducted between Sept. 29 and Oct. 14.
Of the 579 respondents determined to be “likely” voters, the poll shows Phil Scott taking 39 percent of the vote, and Sue Minter getting 38 percent. That’s well within the survey’s 3.9 percent margin of error, and means the candidates are locked in a tie as they head down the home stretch.
Liberty Union candidate Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the only other candidate on the ballot, got 2 percent of the vote in VPR’s survey.
Among the likely voters surveyed was Michael Martin Bizon. Bizon is 64 years old, lives in Hubbardton, and says he pays pretty close attention to politics.
“I tend to lean Democratic,” Bizon says. “But I tend to go more with a person than with a party.”
Bizon long ago decided who’ll be getting his vote in the race for president – Hillary Clinton. But the retired machinist at GE says he’ll make his choice for Vermont’s next governor between now and Election Day.
“I just want to see how they handle themselves,” Bizon says.
Bizon is among the 14 percent of likely voters surveyed by VPR who have yet to make up their minds in this year’s race for governor. And late-race decisions of residents like Bizon could mean the difference for victory or defeat for Sue Minter and Phil Scott.
“The surprise is just how nerve-wracking this is,” says Rich Clark, director of the Castleton Polling Institute, and a professor of political science at Castleton University. “In a year where at the [U.S.] Senate level and the presidential level there are no surprises – it’s in the bag for the top candidates – the gubernatorial race? This is a competitive state.”
Vermont’s electoral landscape tends to favor Democrats, especially in a presidential year expected to drive higher turnout at the polls. According to a Gallup poll from 2015, Vermont has the widest partisan spread in the nation, with 52 percent of voters identifying as Democrat or Democrat leaning, compared to 30 percent favoring Republicans, or leaning toward the GOP.
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says he pegs the partisan split at closer to 35 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican. But the data are by all accounts decisive.
“We have the image of Vermont as the blue state, the liberal Democrats,” Clark says.
But Scott is a familiar three-term lieutenant governor who’s made inroads with Democrats, as evidenced by his wide margin of victory in his last statewide campaign. And Clark says the poll shows Scott continues to win favor with people who don’t care for his party.
“Phil Scott draws more heavily from the Democrats than Sue Minter does from the Republicans,” Clark says.
According to the VPR poll, 81 percent of Republicans, and people who lean Republican, say they’ll vote for Scott. Minter, meanwhile, picks up 65 percent of Democrats, or voters who lean Democratic.
Still, Clark says for a first-time statewide candidate, Minter is holding her own.
“Minter’s competitiveness may be the more astonishing, just based on our historical voting patterns,” Clark says.
Historical voting patterns show Vermonters tend to replace their outgoing governors with a candidate from the opposite party.
Clark says the higher the turnout on Nov. 8, the likelier it is Minter will reverse that trend, because even though Scott takes some Democrats, Minter will undoubtedly win the majority of their votes.
The poll found that Minter is winning 4 percent of Republicans’ votes; Scott is getting 14 percent of Democrats'.
“She has the hopes that a higher turnout still is going to favor a Democratic candidate,” Clark says. “And if she can drive the turnout, the get-out-the-vote may be her best effort.”
The poll shows that voters favor Scott on the issues candidates are hammering on the most. Forty-one percent of voters say trust Phil Scott most on the economy and jobs, for example, compared to 28 percent who favor Minter. On issues related to taxes and the budget, 42 percent say they favor Scott, compared with 28 percent for Minter.
But the clear advantage in those two arenas isn’t translating into an overall lead for Scott.
“Because issues don’t decide elections,” Clark says.
It’s an odd but true maxim in the world of political science. And it allows other factors to play outsized roles in the elections process.
Vermont may be known as place where voters prize person over party. But Clark says many voters still take their lead from the party they best align with. In a blue state like Vermont, that’s a boon for Minter.
“You know, the party cue means something,” Clark says. “And as parties have become more polarized, so has voting for one’s party.”
For both campaigns, Clark says, the race will be won or lost in the next three weeks.
More than three-quarters of likely voters say they’re paying attention very closely or somewhat closely to the presidential race. Only 56 percent say the same thing about the race for governor.
“We’ve noticed that people haven’t really tuned into the gubernatorial race to the same extent they’re tuned into the presidential race,” Clark says.
Both Minter and Scott will be working hard to win their attention between now and Nov. 8.
While the poll shows Scott with an edge over Minter on issues related to the economy, taxes, the budget and cost of living, voters say they trust Minter on education and the environment.
Asked who they “most trust” to handle K-through-12 education, voters favored Minter over Scott, 38 percent to 31 percent. Asked who they most trust on the environment and clean energy issues, they also sided with Minter, 40 percent to 29 percent.
Voters trust Scott and Minter equally to handle issues related to Vermont Health Connect, according to the poll.
The poll was conducted prior to Bernie Sanders’ issuing his endorsement of Minter’s campaign. As for what kind of impact that development might have on the race, Clark says: “I have no idea.”
“Will the endorsement energize Sanders’ voters to come out for Minter? Or will the fact that the endorsement came out so late send just as much a signal as a non-endorsement?” Clark says. “It really depends on not just the endorsement, but what happens following that, to mobilize and get out the vote.”
The Minter campaign announced this week that Sanders will be joining its candidate on a weekend swing with stops across the state.
The poll shows Scott doing better with men than women – he gets 44 percent of the male vote, and 35 percent of women. Those numbers are almost inverted for Minter, who is carrying 42 percent of women and 35 percent of men.
Scott has a decisive edge over Minter among independent voters, with 54 percent to Minter’s 12 percent.
And many independent voters are having a hard time making up their minds – 24 percent say they’re still undecided, compared to 7 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners, and 13 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners.
The poll shows that the less that voters are paying attention, the better Minter performs. Minter gets 31 percent of the vote among people who say they’re following the race “very closely,” and 42 percent of the vote from people who say they’re not following it at all.
Scott carries 56 percent of the vote among people who say they’re following the race very closely, and 23 percent of those not following it at all.
Scott also gets 55 percent of the vote of people who say they’re “very familiar" with the candidates, while Minter gets 35 percent of their votes.
The VPR Poll was made possible in part with support from the VPR Journalism Fund.