State of the States: Vermont

Quick, what’s the state that has historically supported Republicans the most? That’s right! The home of Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders. The land of maple syrup and green mountains. The place with the progressive bastions of Burlington (where Bernie was mayor) and Brattleboro (pretend Berkeley was a giant B&B.)

Yes, Vermont has given more cumulative support to GOP presidential candidates than any other state. This isn’t a mistake or typo. From the first candidate, John Fremont in 1856, through Richard Nixon in 1960, Vermont was redder than the national popular vote in every election. By a minimum of 17 points and an average of more than double that. Even when losing badly overall, Republicans won the state every time, including 1936 when FDR only lost two states (Maine was the other rebel,)

Then Barry Goldwater happened.

Suddenly in 1964, Vermonters voted blue. By over 30 points. From seemingly R+Infinity to D+11 in one election. There’s some dispute about exactly when the GOP stopped being the Party of Lincoln. Vermont can give us an idea.

It took a while longer to turn the state blue. Republicans won the next several presidential contests there. A Democrat wouldn’t win Vermont again until 1992. Though a few of those GOP wins were narrower than the national popular vote. Now it’s what you think it is. An average of D+27. When New England was mostly Republican, Vermont was the most so. Now the region is blue and Vermont is the bluest.

2016 Results: Hillary Clinton 55.72%, Donald Trump 29.76%, Bernie Sanders (write-in) 5.68%, Gary Johnson 3.14%, Jill Stein 2.11%, Others 3.69% (D+24).

There were a *lot* of protest votes. It’s important to remember Vermonters are far more likely to vote blue than red in presidential elections, but they’re fiercely independent. The state has a Republican governor and a Socialist senator.

2020 Polls: None.

There’s no set of circumstances where Joe Biden is in danger here. The absence of Jill Stein and his good relationship with Bernie guarantee he’ll outperform Hillary.

Key Historical Shifts: Vermont became a state in 1791 (#14), and since that time has gone through several political phases:

Phase One (1792-1824): Election by State Legislature. There’s nothing in the Constitution about popular voting for president at the state level. It became a thing in the early 19th century, but not all states adopted it at the same time. Vermont waited a bit. During this time, it was the least Federalist of the New England states.

Phase Two (1828-1852): Anti-Jacksonian. The people of Vermont started weighing in for 1828, and they were not fans of Andrew Jackson. Or his successor Martin Van Buren. Or anyone else running as a Democrat. When it was still Thomas Jefferson’s party, Vermonters didn’t have a problem. Then Jackson showed up. Vermont voted for the Whig candidate every year there was a Whig party and Jackson’s opponent before that was an option.

Phase Three (1856-1908): Fiercely Republican. Vermont was arguably the most abolitionist state in the country. Bordering Canada, it was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. While Whigs generally sought to limit the expansion of slavery, many in the new Republican Party wanted to eliminate it. So Vermonters voted Republican by far greater margins than they’d voted Whig.

After the Civil War, Vermont strongly supported the Party of Lincoln, with almost as much vigor as the former states of the Confederacy opposed it.

Phase Four (1912-1960): Still loyal to the GOP. This was still a very safe place for Republicans. But the schism between incumbent William Taft and his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 loosened things up a bit. There were progressive and conservative sides to the party now, and the only thing uniting Vermont was opposition to Southern Democrats.

When JFK ran in 1960, he did better in Vermont than the normal Democrat. It’s not as Catholic as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or Connecticut, but the state is still in the top 15.

Phase Five (1964-1988) Free agent state. When Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he triggered a reaction in Vermont similar to that of Andrew Jackson’s campaigns. 104 years of party loyalty went out the window. This still wasn’t what we’d now consider a liberal/progressive state. Not only were the next six elections won by Richard Nixon (2x), Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (2x), and George H.W. Bush, but the Democrat who did worst compared to his overall showing was George McGovern, the closest thing to Bernie the Democrats have ever nominated.

Phase Six (1992-Present): Bernie’s World. That 1988 victory for Bush the Elder is the last time a GOP candidate got electoral votes in Vermont. Ford’s 1976 campaign was the last to do better with Vermonters than the national popular vote. Beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrats have taken over, with an extra spike from 2004 when Vermont Democratic Governor Howard Dean ran against the Iraq War in the primaries.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Results: This isn’t an if, it’s by how much. Not only will Biden not have to deal with as many third party distractions or angry Bernie fans as Clinton did, but Trump has worn out whatever welcome he had with the almost 30% of voters who supported him. This could wind up being Biden’s best state.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Results: You don’t need to be a social justice crusader to win Vermont. Candidates from Jefferson to Reagan did very little for civil rights and were not punished at the polls. But candidates who were particularly popular down South like Jackson and Goldwater caused long-term realignment in Vermont. Trump sure seems to fit into that second group. He caught a little bit of that contrary independent side of the state last time and his opposition splintered. He won’t be that lucky this time.

Forecast: Something in the neighborhood of 69/27, with a smattering of third party votes.

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