What's the Deal With Vermont Voters?

Little noticed amid the hubbub over Texas and Ohio, the Green Mountain State holds its presidential primary March 4. Vermont Public Radio's Bob Kinzel looks at who's voting for whom.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

On March 4, 1791, Vermont began the 14th state in the union. On March 4, 2008, Vermont will help decide who gets the Democratic nomination for president. As for the Republicans, well, John McCain is 50 points ahead of Mike Huckabee in state-wide polls, so that's pretty much a lock for the Arizona senator, but the Clinton and Obama campaigns are still working for those delegates. Obama has opened at least seven campaign offices in Vermont, while Clinton has at least two, and Chelsea Clinton is expected to stump for her mom today in Burlington.

But what will the voters who elected the current Republican governor, after electing a very well-known Democratic governor...

(Soundbite of scream)

STEWART: ...yeah, Howard Dean. How can you forget him? And then there's the state's former senator, Jim Jeffords, who left his party to become an independent. Now that's what you might call a mixed bag. Bob Kinzel is the state house reporter for Vermont Public Radio. Hi, Bob.

BOB KINZEL: (Unintelligible)

STEWART: Hey, how are you?

KINZEL: I'm doing great.

STEWART: All right, so I think it's fair to call Vermont sort of a homogeneous state. The white population is 96.3 percent; the black population is 0.8 percent; the Latino population, 1 percent. It appears Vermont has a pretty independent streak when it comes to politics. How might this be reflected on Tuesday?

KINZEL: I think it's going to bode very well for Senator Obama. I mean, Vermont doesn't have any party registration, but probably 40 percent of the people in Vermont describe themselves as Democrats. Maybe 30 percent say they're Republicans, and another 30 percent say they're independents. And what we're going to see, I think, is a lot of those independents deciding to vote for Senator Obama.

So it's an open primary. Anybody can vote in the Democratic primary or the Republican primary, and the fact that, as you mentioned, Senator McCain is doing very well, some of those independents that might have tended to vote for Senator McCain I think will decide to vote in the Democratic primary for Senator Obama.

STEWART: Let me ask you a nuts-and-bolts question about voting on Tuesday. So you - as long as you've registered, and the registration is already closed, right?

KINZEL: That's correct.

STEWART: The deadline has already passed, but you can walk in and vote. Are you bound by that vote? If you say okay, well, I want to vote as a Democrat today, do you have to vote as a Democrat in November? Are you set?

KINZEL: Absolutely not. Here's how it works. You walk in, and you tell your town clerk I'd like the Republican presidential ballot, or I'd like the Democratic presidential ballot. They write a little R or a D next to you name on the checklist, and if you want to, the next day, you can go in and say please erase that initial. I don't want to have it there. But if you leave it there, when it comes around four years from now for another vote, you can say change it from a D to an R. So it's wide open.

STEWART: So let me ask you this question, which might be hard to answer, keeping that in mind. Is Vermont a blue state or a red state?

KINZEL: You know, Vermont for the last four presidential elections has been solidly Democratic. The last time that Vermont voted for a Republican presidential candidate was back in 1988. And if you look at our congressional delegation - you were talking about the independents of Vermont - right now we have a senator Democratic, Pat Leahy, the chairman of the judiciary committee.

STEWART: Powerful guy.

KINZEL: Very popular person in Vermont. We have an independent senator, Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a socialist. He's very popular in Vermont. And we have a very liberal Democrat as our sole member of Congress, Peter Welch. And then we have a Republican governor, and it's really quite amazing that the Republican governor continues to get elected, considering how liberal our congressional delegation is. But this is a very Democratic state.

STEWART: Well, we mentioned that the voter registration deadlines already are past. Are there any reports on whether there's been an up-tick in registration?

KINZEL: Oh there definitely is. There's a lot of interest in this race in Vermont because in the last four election cycles, the Vermont primary really hasn't counted for anything because the races have been decided by the time you get to March 4. Voter registration is definitely up in the last two or three months. We're a very liberal, early ballot state.

You can go to your town clerk and say, within 30 days of an election, I'd like to vote on early ballot, and you can just do it for convenience sake. You don't have to be away. And there's also a lot of interest on the street. You can talk about it at coffee houses, bars, restaurants. There's a big buzz in Vermont about the presidential race this year.

STEWART: That must be exciting, considering your neighbor, New Hampshire, usually gets all the love, all the limelight from the candidates, obviously because of it's first-in-the-nation status. Have you seen many of the candidates?

KINZEL: Well, John McCain was here last week, and as you mentioned, Chelsea Clinton is coming by in Burlington in about an hour and a half. That's about it for the candidates or their surrogates, but we have, as you mentioned, the campaigns have opened stores throughout the state, and Senator Obama is running a very strong grass-roots campaign here as well as a very strong television campaign.

You cannot watch television for more than an hour without seeing two or three Obama ads, and that's something that the Clinton campaign is not doing. I think they figured out they're going to lose Vermont, and they're using their resources in other states where they have a better chance.

STEWART: I'm curious - we're talking to Bob Kinzel, the state house reporter for Vermont Public Radio. Of course, Vermont has their primary on Tuesday. In Ohio and Texas - by the way, I don't know if you've heard, there's also having primaries on Tuesday - you've heard the candidates speaking quite a bit about NAFTA and health care. Those are the big issues in those two states. In Vermont, what is the big issue?

KINZEL: By far, the biggest issue is the War in Iraq, and I think Senator Obama's opposition to the war and Senator Clinton's initial vote to authorize military force in Iraq is a major, major factor. It dwarfs all the other issues. I mean, all three members of the state's congressional delegation have voted to link any future funding for the war to a specific troop withdrawal.

Many Vermonters support that, and so the fact that Senator Clinton hasn't even said that her initial vote was a mistake, and on a radio program that I hosted last week, some of her strongest supporters said they wish that she had just said that vote was a mistake and then move on from that. But she hasn't done that, and that has really hurt her in Vermont.

STEWART: She got pretty close in that MSNBC debate, but she hasn't come out and said it flat-out on her own. I'm curious that, you know, of the 23 delegates, seven of them are superdelegates, one of whom is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and your state's former governor, Howard the Dean, Howard the Scream Dean. Any words or signs on who he might support? I mean, he's sort of in an interesting position as the chairman of the DNC.

KINZEL: I think he's being very careful here. He cannot lean either way. My guess is that he's going to stay in neutral until this thing is totally wrapped up. I mean, I think he's got bigger problems to deal with, including how they're going to deal with the delegates from Michigan and Florida. So he doesn't need to step into the hornet's nest of actually declaring for one of the candidates at this time.

STEWART: More importantly, is it a big deal that Ben and Jerry have supported Obama and come out for him?

KINZEL: Well, it's got a lot of entertainment value. They've got a couple of vehicles that they're driving around the state, the Obama-mobiles, and they have a certain cache to them, and they attract a lot of attention because of their celebrity status, but in terms of actually turning voters over to Senator Obama, I don't think it helps that much.

STEWART: If there is a surprise on March 4 coming out of Vermont, what will it be?

KINZEL: the surprise would be that the margin of victory for Obama is less that 15 percent. If it's anything less than 15 percent, I think the Clinton folks are going to feel very good about what happened in Vermont.

STEWART: Bob Kinzel is a state house reporter for Vermont Public Radio. Hey Bob, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

KINZEL: My pleasure.

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