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Politically Thinking: Trends emerge in Dems' primary

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Posted on August 19, 2010 |
By Eric L. Davis



With only a few days left before the primary, four of the five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor could end up as the winner next Tuesday.

Deb Markowitz has raised the most money of any of the Democrats, and has used this money to build an effective field organization. Markowitz’s campaign may be the strongest of the five in terms of field organization and voter identification, but she is falling behind other candidates in conveying a clear message to voters. Peter Shumlin and Matt Dunne have closed in on Markowitz over the summer, and come in to the primary with strong momentum. Next week, we will learn whether Markowitz’s lead at the start of the summer was large enough to fend off other candidates’ recent surges. Although Markowitz’s message is not as sharply focused as several of the other candidates, her lack of a legislative record may make her less vulnerable to Republican attack ads in the fall.

Peter Shumlin has the sharpest message of any of the candidates, and he is spending heavily, using both donations from others and his own funds, to broadcast this message on television. He claims to have demonstrated leadership on controversial issues such as marriage equality and closing Vermont Yankee, and promises to exercise similar leadership as governor on issues such as health care and early childhood education. Shumlin also has a strong geographical base in southern Vermont, and he frequently reminds audiences in that part of the state that he would be the first governor in more than 30 years to live south of Route 4. However, Shumlin may be the most polarizing candidate in the Democratic field, and he will need to emphasize building party unity should he win the primary.

Matt Dunne, who has a history of finishing campaigns strongly, raised a lot of money over the summer, and has the best-developed Internet presence of any of the candidates. Dunne’s campaign also shows analytical depth on public policy. Two papers on his Web site, one on economic development, the other on transparency in government, are the best policy pieces that any candidate for governor has produced to date. In order to win the primary, and to be elected governor, Dunne must expand his support beyond affluent and highly educated Democrats to low- and middle-income voters, especially in the more rural parts of the state.

Doug Racine’s chances of winning the primary are lower than those of Dunne, Markowitz, and Shumlin, but Racine could still emerge in first place, especially if primary turnout is very low. Racine’s campaign is largely dependent on volunteer help from the labor and environmental organizations that have endorsed him. His summer fund-raising was disappointing, and his campaign is unable to match the others in terms of television advertising. Racine’s hopes for victory rest on a low-turnout primary in which organization, rather than broadcast communication, turns out to be decisive. Racine has been portraying himself in recent weeks as a realistic pragmatist. If he wins the primary, is this a message that will inspire voters in the fall?

The fifth candidate in the Democratic primary, Susan Bartlett, has been unable to compete effectively. Bartlett has not raised enough money to get her message out, or to build a statewide organization. Also, she is appealing for support to a group of voters, moderate Democrats, who will not turn out in large numbers for the primary. Most Democratic primary voters think of themselves as liberals or progressives rather than moderates.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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