As Vineyard voters prepare to go to the polls for the state primary Tuesday, the outcome is anyone’s guess.
In fact, trying to predict how the Island will vote next week requires the kind of divination that would put a witch hunt to shame.
Feb. 5, also known as Super Tuesday, has been the subject of intense media coverage over the past months. The date, on which 24 states, including this one, will hold their primary elections, is now lumbered with monikers as hysterical as Super Duper Tuesday, or Tsunami Tuesday and, more recently, by the Press Enterprise, Tuesday of Destiny.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
In Edgartown, voting will take place across the street from the town hall in the Baylies Room of the Old Whaling Church since the library has temporarily occupied the selectmen’s meeting room. Other primary locations are the American Legion Hall for Tisbury, the Chilmark Community Center, the Aquinnah town hall, the West Tisbury public safety building, the Oak Bluffs library and the Gosnold town hall, which is on Cuttyhunk.
For every argument for a Vineyard voting trend there seems to exist an equally forceful counter argument. As frequent visitors to Martha’s Vineyard, the Clintons have historically had strong support here. But they have lost the backing of the Kennedy family, with Caroline and Sen. Ted Kennedy both endorsing Barack Obama. Senator Kennedy was a powerful force in the John Kerry campaign, who won decisively here in 2004.
Massachusetts moved its primary date forward from March late last year. “We now have much more impact on the election process because the outcome is still totally unknown at this point,” said Kelly Marcino, executive director of the League of Women Voters for Massachusetts, a nonpartisan group which encourages democratic participation.
Approaching this decisive day, the national race is tight. According to The Washington Post, with four main candidates left running, among the Republicans frontrunner John McCain has 93 delegates while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has 59, though both have won three states. Sen. Hillary Clinton has captured 249 delegates versus Sen. Barack Obama’s 181.
Massachusetts switched from a winner-takes-all state to a system of proportional representation in June of last year, to the chagrin of many Romney supporters at the time who felt he would carry the Republican nomination. The new system is complex and involves taking six delegates — three men and three women — from each of 61 districts in the commonwealth. Delegates will also be nominated at the state level.
Primaries will be held for Democratic and Republican races as well as for the Green Rainbow and Working Familes parties.
An informal poll of 150 voters conducted by this newspaper two weeks ago, on the eve of the first state caucus in Iowa, showed support for Barack Obama and John McCain. Satisfyingly, Senator Obama went on to convincingly win that caucus and John McCain is currently the front runner for the Republican party. However, the overwhelming finding of the poll was that Island voters were either undecided or playing their cards close to the vest.
The Island’s 6,370 unenrolled voters make up the majority of registered voters here and can vote for candidates from any party on Tuesday. Dukes County has a greater percentage of unenrolleds than the state as a whole.
Richard Knabel, a self-described political junkie and former state convention attendee from West Tisbury, has a theory. “People are unenrolled here because they don’t want people to know who they are,” he said.
Still, Mr. Knabel feels there is little constituency for Republicans within this voting mass. “The unenrolled vote here breaks for the Democrats,” he said, adding: “I’ll be as interested as everyone else to see how this Island votes. It could go either way.”
No state records are kept on unenrolled voting trends, but town clerks are able to get a picture of their town’s trends. Aquinnah town clerk Carolyn Feltz agrees with Mr. Knabel’s prognosis. “We have more than 50 per cent unenrolleds, but they end up going Democrat — that’s the trend,” she said.
In the search for an updated Republican comment, cars with bumper stickers indicating conservative political leanings were followed, notes pleading for information were left unanswered and town leaders, falsely rumored to have Republican sympathies, were pestered.
One such leader, Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck, confirmed that the Island is home to a small but stalwart group of Republicans — but Mr. Smadbeck identified himself as an Obama booster. “He’s fresh, he’s new and he’s honest,” he said. From a total 12,176 Dukes County voters, less than 1,500 are registered as Republicans.
An electronic questionnaire from a Minnesota Public Radio station designed to match voters with candidates from the main parties taken by Vineyard Gazette employees produced a confusing newsroom endorsement of Mike Gravel, a Democratic candidate who, while still technically in the race at press time, is yet to win any delegates and is unlikely to be a figure of significance on Tuesday.
Party officials are predictably unilluminating. Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for Mr. Obama in Massachusetts, unsurprisingly fancies his candidate’s chances here. “We came into this race in Massachusetts as underdogs,” said Mr. Cherlin before launching into a long list of prominent Massachusetts Obama endorsers. “But folks are excited. We have to work hard for every vote and we’re under no illusions about this contest taking place in the newspapers. People take their vote very seriously here.”
Undecided Vineyarders will not get the opportunity voters in other states have had to meet candidates firsthand at this stage, or to “look under the hood and kick the tires,” as Mr. Obama puts it. Mark Daly, press secretary for Hillary Clinton, said he has no idea whether Senator Clinton will pay a visit to the state before Tuesday. Mr. Knabel said he heard the unlikely rumor that Mr. Obama will pay a visit to the Island today. Mr. Cherlin could only confirm that the senator will travel to Boston on Monday night. And he laughed at the idea that Mr. Obama might touch down on the Vineyard at any point in the near future.
If there is one consensus it is that this primary has piqued the Island’s interest. A full 60 Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students registered to vote before the Jan. 16 deadline. Town clerks across the Island responsible for registration and managing ballot counting on Tuesday all reported an unusually high interest this year. Edgartown clerk Wanda Williams said it is the most interest she has seen in a primary in 20 years. “People are casting like crazy,” said Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge, noting absentee ballots coming in from addresses as far flung as France and Uganda.
Volunteerism and campaigning has been at best low key. A locally organized ring of Obama supporters recently volunteered to develop a phone bank, put up support signs and organize meetings over the coming weekend but the plans now have been abandoned in favor of a quieter approach.
“People are having friends around to watch the debates but that’s it,” said Patricia Moore, a Vineyard campaign organizer and enthusiastic Obama supporter. She too has little gauge of the Island’s voting future, though. “I don’t know anyone willing to do odds around here,” she said.