Vermont Votes Its Own Way

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Toby Talbot / AP

Chelsea Clinton greets residents of Burlington, Vermont, four days before the state's presidential primary, Friday, Feb. 29, 2008.

There are swing states. There are bellwether states. And then there is Vermont.

The Green Mountain State was once an independent republic, and it still goes its own way; a 2007 statewide poll found 13% support for secession. Vermont was the only state to support the Anti-Masonic ticket in 1832, the only state except Utah to go for President Taft in 1912, the only state except nearby Maine to oppose President Roosevelt in 1936. No one has ever claimed that as Vermont goes, so goes the nation. So on Tuesday, when Vermont's voters go to the polls, the world will be watching — Texas and Ohio.

That makes sense. Vermont has only 625,000 residents, and they aren't wrestling with most of the problems that are dominating the campaign. Vermont doesn't have many immigrants; it ranks last in the nation in foreclosures; it's consistently rated the healthiest state. But if the politics of Vermont doesn't tell us much about the politics of America, it is still quirky and intriguing.

"The independent streak goes way back, and it's never gone away," says Thomas Naylor, a former Duke economics professor who now leads the state's fledgling secession movement. In that statewide poll, three of every four Vermonters agreed that the United States had lost its moral authority. "That's really something," Naylor says.

There is no party registration in Vermont, but it was once the most staunchly Republican state in the Union, supporting the G.O.P. in 28 straight presidential elections and enjoying a 108-year gap between Democratic governors. "It was a gray Republican backwater; being a Democrat meant FDR had appointed you to the post office," says John McLaughry, a former state legislator and Reagan Administration advisor who runs the free-market Ethan Allen Institute. An influx of urban refugees and hippie escapists from New York and Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s changed everything. Soon Vermont had ski resorts, billboard bans, chi-chi restaurants, yoga retreats, and liberal Democrats. "That was the kickoff for our spurt into the future," McLaughry says, with more than a hint of disapproval.

Now Vermont is blue heaven, home of Ben and Jerry and Phish, the first state with civil unions for gays, the last state with a Wal-Mart and the only state that President Bush has somehow neglected to visit. (Naylor likes to say that Bush is the unofficial membership director for his secession movement.) One Vermont Senator, Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders, is an avowed socialist; the other, Pat Leahy, is a liberal Democrat perhaps best known for being told by the Vice President on the Senate floor to go "f--k yourself." When Manhattan-born Howard Dean served as governor, he was considered pretty conservative for a Vermont politician.

Nowadays, Vermont once again has a Republican governor, Massachusetts-born Jim Douglas, who's favored to win his fourth term in November. And it is a rural state, so its politicians tend to support guns and farms. It's even got some black-helicopter types in its rugged Northeast Kingdom. But thinking of Vermont as a northeastern version of Idaho or Nebraska because it's got rifles and cows is sort of like thinking of the Village People as tough guys because they had a cop and a construction worker. It's a land of teddy bears, organic cheese, planning charrettes, Buddhist converts and the Vermont Progressive Party, whose members include six state legislators, Burlington's mayor, and the only announced challenger to Governor Douglas. Most telling is the fact that it's the only state where self-identified liberals outnumber self-identified Democrats.

Which brings us to March 4. Vermont has the nation's second-whitest and second-oldest electorate, the kind of demographics that tend to favor Hillary Clinton in Democratic primaries. The popular former governor Madeleine Kunin is leading the Clinton campaign in Vermont, and Chelsea Clinton came to campaign on Friday. But Barack Obama is dominating the polls. "This is a state with a strong feminist tradition, but Obama's eating Hillary's lunch," says University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson. Obama created quite a stir when he visited the campus last year. "I've been here 40 years, and I've never seen a longer line to see a speaker," Nelson says.

On the Republican side, John McCain seems to be running away with the race, with Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul in a battle for second place. The libertarian-minded Paul has a certain appeal to the leave-me-alone traditions of the Vermont outback — Naylor recalls meeting him at a 1995 secession conference in South Carolina — but it's not really a leave-me-alone state. Taxes are high. Government services are extensive. It's the only state without a balanced budget requirement, but its bonds are top-rated. Local affairs are still handled at the annual town meetings renowned throughout New England — Vermont's will be held this year on, yes, March 4 — but the state government has steadily expanded its power. "There's less and less for town meetings to decide; we might get to choose a road commissioner," says McLaughry, who has moderated the town of Kirby's annual meetings for the last 42 years. "There's a very strong collectivist element in Vermont."

In any case, the Democratic nominee will surely carry the state in November. G.O.P. primaries used to be the main events in Vermont, deciding whether progressive Republicans or conservative Republicans would represent the state in Washington and Montpelier, but now they're basically irrelevant. In 1998, an elderly dairy farmer named Fred Tuttle — a high school dropout who had starred in a low-budget political farce called Man With a Plan but had never showed any interest in public policy — won the G.O.P. primary to challenge Senator Leahy with a $16 campaign budget. (The key moment came during a radio debate, when he stumped his multimillionaire opponent by asking: "How many teats are there on a cow?") Tuttle proceeded to endorse Leahy before the general election, which probably wasn't what the Republican National Senatorial Committee had in mind.

"Vermont is wonderfully quirky, and we like to put our thumb in the eye of the establishment," Nelson says. "But I wouldn't read too much into Tuesday. It's a liberal state."