MONTPELIER — After months of campaigning, millions of dollars spent and countless hours of plotting and strategizing from both campaigns, in the end, the gubernatorial race in Vermont was not a close contest.
Republican Phil Scott, the state’s current lieutenant governor, and now governor-elect, beat Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sue Minter by a very comfortable margin — 52 percent to 43.5 percent. Public polls commissioned by Vermont Public Radio and WCAX released in mid-October showed a closer race, with Scott leading by 1 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
There was plenty of speculation in the days before Election Day that the winner may only receive a plurality, and once again, the race would be tossed to the Legislature to finish. But it was not close. Interviews with people familiar with both campaigns shed light on how the campaign evolved and ended with Scott’s decisive victory.
Scott’s team knew from their own research that the VPR poll was not accurate. Their own internal numbers showed Scott leading by a healthier margin. But, they were pleased to see the close result because it helped them make the case to marginal Scott voters that they mattered and needed to cast their ballots for him.
A week later the WCAX poll, which was largely in line with their own numbers, worked in the opposite way. Scott and his team worried that it would lead to complacency. Soft voters who thought their favored candidate was up big may not get out and vote. The WCAX poll also matched the demographic breakdowns the Scott team was seeing — many undecided female voters could still be pursuaded. The results on election day showed that Scott won nearly all of them.
It was around that time that Minter and her allies — namely Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the Democratic Governors Association — sought to move aggressively against Scott on the abortion issue. They released several television ads and mailers accusing Scott of not being fully pro-choice.
Scott’s team bucked conventional wisdom and engaged in the debate. They made a strategic choice to push back and keep Minter from owning the issue. By engaging in that debate — at the expense of Scott’s core economic message — the Scott team gambled that they could goad Democrats into overplaying their hand and cause them to lose some of their core supporters who didn’t see Scott as anti-choice.
The Scott team believes the gamble paid off. As Democrats continued to hammer away, they saw more undecided female voters break for Scott in the final week of the campaign.
The Minter campaign was always optimistic, right up until the bitter end. The campaign’s own research told them they remained within striking distance of Scott — and that was before high-profile surrogates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Barack Obama cut ads for Minter, and in the case of Sanders, campaigned with her. The Democratic Party’s superior infrastructure was also expected to deliver a boost for Minter.
It did for Lt. Gov.-elect David Zuckerman, the Democratic and Progressive nominee, as well as for other Democratic statewide candidates and the two Democratic incumbents in Congress, not to mention Hillary Clinton at the presidential level. But voters were also willing to split the ticket and vote for Scott, whose affable personality appeared to carry him to victory.
The Scott campaign believes its core message about the economy, and the deeper trust voters had with Scott on that issue, was the difference. They continued to see strong support in their economic message.
Scott also had a secondary, under-the-radar effort to target voters on a few key issues — gun control, school choice and wind power. The campaign used targeted outreach efforts to encourage voters who agreed with Scott on those issues to back him. By doing so, the campaign was able to close the margin with Minter in traditionally strong Democratic areas.
After winning the Democratic primary in August, the Minter team grew frustrated that Scott was continuing to base his campaign largely on platitudes rather than detailed policies. They struggled to show a contrast between the two candidates in ways that would excite the electorate.
So they sought to continue pushing Minter’s own ideas, including a free college tuition plan. But that, too, led to frustration as their policies were dissected by the media and their opposition while Scott, they believed, continued to skate on his broad theme of affordability while painting a misguided picture of Minter and what she believed.
Minter did not favor a carbon tax or expanding the sales tax to services. But she stumbled in her response to those charges from Scott and his allies. In fact, her mention during a WDEV radio debate at the Tunbridge World’s Fair of the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission report was not planned, but it teed up a sustained campaign by the GOP suggesting Minter wanted to spread the sales tax to services.
Scott’s team firmly believed that Minter did favor a carbon tax and did want to expand the sales tax. Minter’s mention of the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission was no accident, they thought. And her refusal to say if she would veto a Vermont-based carbon tax only fueled their belief that she was misleading Vermonters. Wind developer David Blittersdorf’s public comments that Minter was hedging on the carbon tax because she favored it only hardened their position.
In hindsight, the Minter campaign saw a few main issues that helped contribute to her defeat — her support for wind energy, Scott’s portrayal of her as a tax-raiser and opposition to Act 46, the education reform law that seeks to consolidate school districts.
Minter also dealt with personal anguish separate from the campaign that she had to manage. The death of five teenagers from the central Vermont area, four of whom attended school at Harwood Union High School with Minter’s son, Jasper, hit her hard.
She was dealing with her personal connection to the students, and the resulting emotional strain and pain, during a critical point in the race. Just days after the teens were killed in a crash, she was confronted with the tragedy during the opening question of a televised WCAX debate and was, perhaps, off her game for the rest of night. The team didn’t view the debate as lost, but believe it could have gone better. The WCAX poll, conducted shortly after the debate, showed a widening Scott lead.
Throughout the campaign, Minter and Scott presented starkly different images to the public and the media. A first-time candidate at the statewide level, Minter had a desire to be fully prepped and prepared for each encounter, be it press or the public. The campaign staff, it seemed, sought to prevent spontaneous interactions.
That structure worked against her. While Scott appeared to be comfortable mixing with the electorate he hoped would choose him, Minter seemed to be in a bubble — stilted by the apparatus around her and her own unwillingness to engage unless it was prearranged.
While Scott spoke to the media at will, Minter shied away from taking reporters’ questions outside of her staged events.
Scott’s campaign operated under a simple mantra — let Phil be Phil. They believed that Scott’s authenticity was his greatest asset, and by being approachable, voters would feel a stronger connection to him. His campaign staff tried to ensure that he was not micro-managed, and they believe he grew into the role of being a leader more as the campaign dragged on.
On election night, the Minter team was still feeling confident as they awaited results, but they prepared to be ready for any outcome.
It became apparent to the Minter campaign that they would be unsuccessful when the results from her hometown of Waterbury came in. She lost it by a vote of 1,552 to 1,465. The optimism faded and they focused on the reality of defeat. Minter prepared to deliver remarks acknowledging the loss.
Despite their polling, Scott’s team remained cautious until the results trickled in. They were concerned with what they didn’t know — how much intensity would there be for Clinton, and how much disdain would there be for Trump, which could impact down-ticket Republicans? Would crossover Democrats really materialize as polling suggested?
It was also the Waterbury results that cemented the idea within the Scott campaign that they had won. They also saw strong results in Bennington and Windham Counties that helped them understand how the night would turn out.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Election Day, Minter emerged from her suite at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington where Democrats had gathered for their election night party. She entered the hotel’s ballroom to speak, smiling and dancing her way on to the stage to concede the race. The result was painful for the Minter team, but manageable. It was the result of the presidential race that added despair to the equation as the night went on.
Minter’s phone concession call to Scott came about an hour-and-a-half after Scott and his team determined that it was mathematically impossible for her to win. As the minutes dragged on with no word from Minter, Scott’s team considered sending him out to claim victory. But Scott decided he would wait until he could speak with his opponent. After sharing what was described as a gracious call, he spoke to his own supporters at the Sheraton in South Burlington and celebrated the victory.