One of the unspoken duties of the punditocracy is to boil down each political contest into a narrative — a story, with simple, graspable characters. Preferably it’s a neat, clean story that helps track and explain the course of a campaign.
Or stereotype it. Exhibit A: the race for Auditor. Vermont’s political media decided early on that it was a contest between a charmless campaign-averse policy wonk (Doug Hoffer) and a well-connected, widely popular born campaigner (Vince Illuzzi). It was obvious that Doug didn’t stand a chance.
And then Doug went and won, and upset the pundits’ applecart.
Well, not if you’re Jon Margolis, political analyst for VTDigger. Even Hoffer’s victory did not shake Margolis’ faith in the pundits’ narrative. As he saw it, Hoffer’s triumph was a simple case of a blind squirrel finding an acorn with a lot of help from his sighted brethren.
You don’t have to spend oodles of money. You don’t have to exude charisma or have a scintillating personality. You don’t even need a brilliant strategic plan.
You just need to be a Democrat.
Yeah, never mind that “Vermonters vote for the person, not the party” and “There are no coattails in Vermont” are articles of punditic faith. Because Hoffer’s election made it clear that even someone with no charisma, personality or plan, even someone with boils on his face and vomit stains on his tie and the stench of evil oozing from his pores, can win. But only if he’s a Democrat.
Otherwise, auditor-elect Doug Hoffer probably would not have edged out Republican Sen. Vince Illuzzi, who has represented the Northeast Kingdom since roughly the Pleistocene era, and who was endorsed by leading Democrats as well as Republicans and a host of unions and other organizations. Illuzzi is an accomplished campaigner. Hoffer is not. Illuzzi radiates optimism and charm. Hoffer, as one active Democrat noted, tends to be “dour.”
See, technically Doug may have won the election, but even so, he is still a fatally flawed candidate.
Okay, let’s take a closer look at conventional wisdom and where it departs from reality.
First, I’ll acknowledge that coattails were a factor in this race. Hoffer would have had a harder time winning if the Republicans had put together a credible ticket. But he did beat Illuzzi by a healthy margin. Was none of that his doing? And compare “master campaigner” Illuzzi to Phil Scott, a Republican who managed to take 57% of the vote. Illuzzi fell 12 percentage points short of that. A lot of centrist ticket-splitters passed over Illuzzi and opted for Hoffer.
Now let’s look at the claim that Illuzzi enjoyed broad support across political divisions. It’s true that some of Democratic Senate warhorses backed him, as did most of the state’s labor unions. But did that turn into tangible support? Neither Hoffer nor Illuzzi was gangbusters at fundraising. In fact, if Illuzzi hadn’t loaned his own campaign $30,000, he would have had a smaller war chest than Hoffer.
Maybe the pundits should have rethought their narrative after seeing those numbers. I was slow to catch onto that; I was critical of the Dems’ failure to support Hoffer but failed to note that Vince was doing no better. Illuzzi reportedly didn’t have a campaign manager, and his campaign was pretty much a solo enterprise. Doesn’t sound like someone with deep connections and three decades of favors to draw on.
Illuzzi has certainly made many friends in his 32 years in Montpelier. He’s also made some enemies. (He is quick to anger, and slow to let go of a grudge.) Is it possible that some of his endorsements were formalities? How many unions or prominent Democrats maxed out their donations to Vince? How many unions urged their workers to get involved? Judging solely from his fundraising, I’d guess that there was at least some lip service in those much-ballyhooed endorsements.
As for Illuzzi’s overwhelming edge as a politician, let’s not forget that he’d never run a race outside his home turf — the Northeast Kingdom. That’s hardly evidence that he’s an “accomplished campaigner.” Campaigning is easy where everybody knows you and victory is in the bag. He was well known in the Kingdom, and he was a fixture in the Statehouse; but how well known was he, really, in Rutland or the Upper Valley or Brattleboro or Bennington? Or even Chittenden County, Doug Hoffer’s home turf?
Vince Illuzzi had never run for statewide office. Doug Hoffer had. Did the punditocracy ever consider that he might have learned a trick or two from his first run? That maybe, dour and uncharismatic though he may appear, he formed a few connections and made a few friends in 2010?
For that matter, Doug does have a lot of political capital in Progressive circles. That’s not as big a deal as Democratic or Republican circles, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. Especially since his campaign was buoyed in the closing days by Bernie Sanders* lending a strong hand.
*At the Dems’ election night party, the biggest cheer came when Obama was re-elected. The second biggest wasn’t for Shumlin or Leahy or Welch — it was for Bernie, and it wasn’t close. He is Vermont’s political superstar.
Illuzzi’s biggest real advantage was inside the Vermont political/media bubble, as Mark Johnson and Eric Davis pointed out in their post-election wrap on Wednesday morning. The connected types all know him; the politicians and lobbyists all know him; God knows, the political media all know him. (Reporters love a guy who gives good quote; just ask John McCain.)
But the vast majority of Vermonters never set foot in the Statehouse, and don’t keep up with political news. When you live inside a bubble, it’s hard to imagine the perspective of life outside.
Vince Illuzzi is another case of what I call the Laracey Effect, named after Mel Laracey, onetime deputy treasurer of the city of Ann Arbor. One year he decided to run for State Representative in a very crowded Democratic primary. He thought he had a really good chance of winning, because “everybody knew him.” Turned out, “everybody who worked or spent a lot of time in City Hall” knew him; he got 3% of the vote.
Now, Vince Illuzzi is no Mel Laracey. But the inside-the-bubble dynamics are the same.
Finally, let’s talk credentials. Even the newspapers that endorsed Illuzzi were hard-pressed to make a case for him. His political background could be taken as a plus — or a minus, since it called into question his ability to be an honest broker. Doug Hoffer clearly had the edge in professional qualifications and experience. Does that count for nothing? Especially with an electorate that is supposedly smart, involved, and willing to vote for the person not the party?
All this said, I’ll acknowledge that Doug Hoffer’s win was the biggest surprise of election night. I’ll acknowledge that I was gratified to see qualifications win out over connections. But the punditocracy never stopped to take a second look at its chosen narrative in light of the facts. And Jon Margolis is determined to stick to the narrative, even after the ending turned out to be completely at odds with it.
There were perfectly valid reasons for fixing upon the chosen narrative in the Auditor’s race — wonk versus pol — but the punditocracy shouldn’t have adhered to it without thoroughly examining the unfolding reality. They ignored all the facts that didn’t fit the narrative, and ignored the hints that this race might not have been so simple as they believed.