Vermont’s Chance: Breaking the Two-Party Monopoly

Barack Obama is expected to win Vermont in the presidential race by as much as 30 points. But the real surprise is the race for governor. At first, three-term Republican incumbent Jim Douglas looked like a shoo-in. But something unusual is happening. Independent candidate Anthony Pollina has pulled ahead of the Democrat, Gaye Symington.

Although September poll showed Douglas with 48 percent of the vote, Symington with 33 percent and Pollina with just 7, a poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports shuffled the race. Douglas received 45 percent support, followed by Pollina with 25 percent and Symington with 20 percent.

Pollina says that the recent poll shows his momentum, and declining support for both of his opponents. If nothing changes, Douglas would end up with the most votes. But if he gets under 50 percent the state legislature will make the decision. Vermont Democrats have a 60 vote edge in the legislature, not counting the six Progressives and two Independents in the House of Representatives.

What if the Obama surge, combined with a successful insurgent campaign here, moves Pollina up another 5 or 10 points between now and Election Day? It takes money, but it could happen. Pollina is arguably the strongest, best qualified Independent candidate for governor in almost a century.

As people wake up and realize what’s at stake there could be a snowball effect, making it anybody’s race. Specifically, it becomes even more than likely that no candidate will get 50 percent of the vote.

The legislature usually picks highest vote-getter but it’s not a rule. And the lawmakers – who are also elected, after all – get to use their own judgment. In 1976, they picked Republican Garry Buckley for Lieutenant Governor even though the Democrat had more votes.

It could happen. If Pollina gets more votes than Symington, the state legislature could face a fundamental choice – confirm an out-of-touch Republican, at a time when the state and country is rejecting the GOP "brand," or vote for change.

"This is not the elephant in the room; this is the room," says University of Vermont political science Professor Garrison Nelson. It’s not surprising to see Pollina advancing in the polls, he adds, since he has run for both governor and lieutenant governor in the past. "I thought it was just a matter of time that once people thought he was electable they would start moving in his direction. Is it enough to win the election? No, but Jim Douglas will not escape the Legislature."

Running for governor as a Progressive in 2000, Pollina received 9.5 percent in a crowded field led by incumbent governor Howard Dean, who won with 50.4 percent. Two years later, Pollina ran for Lt. Governor, again as a Progressive, receiving 24.8 percent of the vote in a three way race. This year, Pollina started his race again as a Progressive, but decided to change his affiliation to Independent in July. At a news conference on July 21, he said that running as an independent "is by far the best way" to build a coalition.

The Obama juggernaut will almost certainly send the governor’s race to the Legislature, according to Nelson. "Barack Obama is going to win Vermont by at least 30 points. It is going to be embarrassing to the Republican Party how badly John McCain is going to lose Vermont," he predicts. "Jim Douglas will have to perform 15 points be tter than John McCain. That’s a tall order for anybody. The Republican brand has become so tarnished."

If Symington and Pollina receive 60 percent of the vote combined, Douglas should begin to worry about who the Legislature will choose. "They’re going to say, ‘Jim, there’s no mandate here for your policies,’" Nelson notes.

Pollina, who has been endorsed by the Vermont State Employees Union, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association and the Vermont chapter of the AFL-CIO, says that his economic plan will focus on projects that put Vermonters to work and help the state maintain an aging infrastructure. "I think of myself of being in the vein of FDR and Jim Douglas as being in the vein of George Bush and John McCain," he argues.

His immediate task is to prove to Vermonters that he can win. If he succeeds, Vermont – which has elected Independent Bernie Sanders to Congress nine times over the last 18 years – has a chance in two weeks to truly break the two-party monopoly.

Greg Guma, a Vermont editor and author, is a former Executive Director of Pacifica Radio. His writing on politics and media can be found on Maverick Media (