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May 22, 2012

From Castleton, A New Poll — With a Couple Grains of Salt

ClarkAs we reported in February, Castleton State College’s new polling center is sure to provide plenty of catnip for Vermont’s political chattering class.

Indeed, results from Castleton’s first poll commissioned by Vermont news outlets — WCAX-TV, WDEV radio and Vermont Business Magazine — are trickling out this week. And the numbers released thus far include a couple of interesting nuggets.

Most eye-poppingly, the poll finds that 65 percent of the 607 Vermonters surveyed approve of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s job performance, while only 23 percent disapprove.

With incumbent approval and trust in government so low in most states, those numbers are “pretty solid," says Castleton polling director Rich Clark (pictured with student pollsters.)

“You’ve got to think that Shumlin’s pretty comfortable,” he says.

It’s early yet for head-to-head horse race polls to show much. Statewide candidates only started launching their campaigns this month, and the filing deadline to get on the ballot isn’t until June 14. Notably, the Vermont Republican Party hasn’t yet drawn candidates to run for attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state or the U.S. House — nor have the Democrats found a candidate to oppose Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

But Shumlin’s approval rating shows that Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) — his leading opponent — may have a tough time making the argument that the incumbent ought to be ousted. For what it's worth, a head-to-head matchup shows Shumlin would trounce Brock 60 — 27 percent if the election were held today.

Clark hypothesized that Shumlin may still be generating positive reviews for his response to Tropical Storm Irene last summer.

“He’s had his Irene moment and I think that really reflects well on him,” Clark says.

Perhaps the most buzzed-about number to come out of Castleton’s poll so far is a head-to-head match-up between two Democratic candidates for attorney general: incumbent Bill Sorrell and challenger T.J. Donovan, the Chittenden County state's attorney.

The survey found that of self-identified Democrats who plan to vote in the primary, 49 percent would vote for Sorrell if the election were held today and 23 percent would support Donovan. Another 25 percent weren’t sure.

So what do these numbers tell us? Not much.

First of all, the poll went into the field on May 7 — just two days after the legislative session came to an end and the campaign season informally began. Though Donovan indicated in March that he planned to run, his formal campaign kickoff didn’t come until May 10.

“Is it too early to predict?” asks Clark. “Absolutely. Are people paying attention? Not yet. But at the same time, it’s our first marker. You’ve got to start sometime.”

That a seven-term incumbent would hold a dramatic lead over an upstart who has never run for office outside Chittenden County should come as no surprise. But the question the Castleton poll fails to answer is just how much name recognition played into the preferences of those polled.

Is Sorrell in the lead because nobody outside the Burlington bubble has heard of Donovan? Or has T.J.’s constant presence on the nightly news — thanks to his criminal-chasing day job — increased his name recognition throughout the state? What are the preferences of those who know both candidates? Do people actually remember the name of the guy they’ve voted for — or against — every two years since the ‘90s?

We don’t know!

“Why we didn’t ask name recognition, I think, is just space,” Clark explains. “There’s a lot of questions where there are so many more things I’d love to ask, but we were trying to keep this in a ten-minute poll.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Democratic match-up is just who Castleton questioned. While 607 registered voters took the poll, 504 said they were ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to vote in the primary — and only 272 of those planned to cast a Democratic ballot. Since Castleton only asked the Sorrell-Donovan question of those 272 respondents, the margin of error increased from a poll-wide four percent to roughly seven percent, Clark says.

More problematic is that Castleton relied on voters to self-identify whether they would vote in the primary — and who’s going to admit they’re such a slouch they can’t get off the couch to exercise their right to vote? A full 65 percent said they would. But with the primary taking place August 28 and no other competitive races on the Democratic ballot, that seems unlikely.

“It’s a crappy measure,” Clark admits. “We know the bias. We’ve lived with the bias.”

But Clark says that once you start weighting respondents by the frequency with which they vote, you start under-representing younger voters.

WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts says he recognizes it’s early in the campaign season to poll the attorney general's race, but he believes his audience is interested in it.

“I think right now it’s the race everybody’s talking about, so I thought it was important to gauge some public opinion on that race,” he says. “The election is late August, so it’s not like we could poll it in September.”

For those eager for more polling catnip, Tebbetts says WCAX and its media partners will continue releasing results from the Castleton survey throughout the week. Look for questions on the presidential election and the job performance of several other Vermont officeholders, including Lt. Gov. Scott, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.

The news outlets also tackled a range of issue-based questions relating to health care, the economy and energy —including a proposed electric utility merger, ridgeline wind power and Vermont Yankee — that WCAX will release this week.

“I think people will be intrigued by some of the results of the issues and the debate will go on with a number of the issues that are out there,” Tebbetts hints.

Photo provided by Castleton State College

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