BURLINGTON, Vt. — They gathered in the stately living room of an unassuming brick house on a hill, sipping coffee and nibbling on Munchkins — an unlikely support group happy to have found each other.
“Some of you may have felt alone, but coming together this morning we know we’re not alone,” former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin told them.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters might as well be political outcasts in the liberal enclaves of Vermont. Her opponent in the Democratic presidential primary, US Senator Bernie Sanders, is beloved by the state he has represented for decades in Congress, especially the free-spirited, lakeside city where he served as mayor.
While Clinton works to secure the nomination around the country, her tiny group of volunteers face insurmountable odds in Vermont’s primary on Tuesday. A recent poll showed Sanders leading Clinton in the state by more than 75 percentage points, but Clinton’s local campaign staff said they are not willing to cede any terrain — or any of the state’s approximately two dozen delegates.
So on Saturday morning, Marlene O’Brien and her sister Jeanette slogged up South Union Street, which was dotted with puddles of melting snow and patches of ice, as they knocked on doors in Burlington’s Hills neighborhood. Over the course of 90 minutes, the sisters found just two people willing to have a conversation about Clinton — and an even fewer number of supporters.
“We’re few and far between,” Marlene O’Brien said. “Obviously, he’s a hometown boy.”
In Vermont, unlike much of the rest of the country, Sanders has the advantage over Clinton in infrastructure and support. His campaign headquarters is on the third-floor of an office building between a jewelry store and an Irish pub along a bustling pedestrian mall. Tourists stopped to take pictures, pick up Sanders’ swag, or find out how they could get involved with his campaign.
Clinton doesn’t have a single campaign office in Vermont. Instead, volunteers meet at each other’s homes, and they are trained on the spot. At Sarah Muyskens’ home in Burlington, a bright blue “Hillary” yard sign shown like a beacon, letting supporters know this was a safe place to let their allegiance be known.
“It can be very difficult to be a Hillary supporter with no one behind you,” Matt Viens, a 45-year-old lawyer in Muyskens’ living room. “I try not to be too confrontational. Even on Facebook, it’s hard to not engage because you know you’re going to get a lot of flak.”
Out of the two dozen volunteers who showed, 10 people ventured onto Muyskens’ lawn in a cold, drizzling rain Saturday for a quick “how-to” session on canvassing. (The campaign won’t say just how many volunteers there are in the state.)
“We know that Vermont is going to be a tough fight,” said Meagan Gardner, Clinton’s Vermont state director, last week on a conference call with volunteers. “We’re not going to give up anywhere, and neither is Hillary Clinton.”
Sanders is a fixture in the Vermont politics, starting as an activist and ascending to mayor of Burlington — the state’s biggest city — for eight years. A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders has represented Vermont in Congress since 1991. He won reelection to the Senate four years ago with 71 percent of the vote, winning every county in the state.
Sanders might have the heart of everyday Vermonters, but Clinton has won the support of many of the state’s leading Democrats, including Kunin, former governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, Governor Peter Shumlin and US Senator Patrick Leahy. Peter Welch – the state’s lone US representative – endorsed Sanders on Friday.
“There are, in fact, a number of fervent Hillary supporters, and sometimes people are just too polite to say so,” Kunin said. “But this is no longer the time to be polite. This is the time to speak out, take action, and make sure that Hillary supporters are represented among the counted when it comes to delegates.”
Muyskens, 62, said later that she and her husband, Michael, have been longtime Sanders supporters – voting for him, giving him money, attending his events – but that support doesn’t extend to his White House aspirations.
“I do not think he has the experience or the temperament to be president,” she said over the hum of activity in her home. “I want this to be Hillary’s time, not just as a woman but given her qualifications.”
This change of heart hasn’t come without a cost.
“There are,” she said, “definitely conversations going on that don’t end always pleasantly.”
But she’s held firm – and so have others who find themselves at odds with friends and family about backing Clinton.
The O’Brien sisters were also longtime Sanders’ supporters, but they found themselves growing disillusioned with him several years ago.
“Well, every person I met that’s for Bernie, I give them my whole spiel,” Jeanette O’Brien, 63, of Williston, a suburb of Burlington, said. “He’s all talk. He’s really establishment. He’s trying to run as an outsider, but he’s been in Senate and Congress for 20 years.”
But the O’Brien sisters had a hard time finding a receptive audience when they went door to door Saturday in Burlington.
One curious University of Vermont professor wanted to know more, but he couldn’t vote because he’s not a citizen. When approached, a hurried 29-year-old walking into her home with an armful of groceries said she was still on the fence.
Otherwise, they were greeted with unanswered knocks or curt responses from Sanders’ supporters. They found one lone household supporting Clinton on their route.
“We’re both voting for Hillary,” Rachel Morton said as her three dogs excitedly circled the sisters, whom she thanked for their efforts. “It must be pretty interesting. It’s a hard choice for people.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.