Marsha McLean, 67, likes to say she's from "quintessential Vermont," where she lives in an actual log house on a dirt road halfway up a mountain. But she breaks with her neighbors — and most of the state — on one popular topic: Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist running against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, enjoys widespread support in the Green Mountain State, where he's expected to win the Tuesday primary by a landslide. One recent poll put the senator 76 points ahead of Clinton. But McLean, a management consultant who used to work in the State Department, has been campaigning for the former first lady, even though it's caused people to call her names and graffiti her Clinton yard signs.
McLean is just one pro-Clinton Vermonter who's bucking the trend and backing the candidate, largely because of her résumé. Clinton fans insist they don't dislike their senator — some previously voted for Sanders — but simply think Clinton's background with the federal government means she'd accomplish more in the Oval Office. This stance, in Sanders' strongest state, could indicate that voters elsewhere are unsure about his credentials, and could spell larger problems for him on Super Tuesday and other primaries in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in July.
"I liken it to going to a football game where you support the home team, but you're put in the midst of the away fans. It feels like being in kind of hostile territory, if you will," McLean said. "But Hillary, for me, has the experience on the world stage as well as the domestic stage that's going to make for a much better president."
Candidates' experience, or lack thereof, has taken a central role in this election cycle. On the Republican side, voters have flocked to support self-proclaimed outsiders like billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Sanders' anti-establishment messages about busting open Wall Street and running a grassroots campaign have similarly impressed Democratic voters.
ABC News/Washington Post poll data released in December indicated that experience plays better with liberals than conservatives. About 58 percent of Republican respondents said they wanted an outsider over a strong résumé. Only 18 percent of Democrats said the same.
Voters and pundits alike will be closely watching Sanders' and Clinton's Super Tuesday performances as their fierce battle for delegates continues. So far, the former secretary has won the primaries or caucuses in three states — Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina — and the senator has nabbed one — New Hampshire.
Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968, lost five senatorial and gubernatorial races, and ultimately became mayor of Burlington by 10 votes in 1981. As he moved through the ranks in Vermont, being elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 and Senate in 2006, Clinton served as Arkansas first lady, U.S. first lady and a senator herself.
Since they've both been running for president, the Democratic race between the lawmakers has grown increasingly close. Clinton was clinging to her national lead Monday with the support of about 51 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, but Sanders had 40 percent. The senator, once considered an underdog, has performed particularly well in Vermont due to his history there, said Eric Davis, political science professor emeritus at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.
"This is a hometown senator who's on the national stage. People want to support him," Davis said.
Clinton certainly has pockets of fans in Vermont. Her 25-person state leadership team includes Gov. Peter Shumlin, former Gov. Howard Dean, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, according to the Burlington Free Press.
"We're very aware that Sen. Sanders is extremely popular in his home state, but what we have seen is there are many Hillary Clinton voters who are really excited about the fact that we've been organizing there and have been working to turn out voters, canvassing and making phone calls, and we look forward to seeing those voters at the polls on election day," said Julie McClain, a spokeswoman for Hillary for Vermont.
Davis noted that Clinton is well-liked by conservative Democrats and independents who see the outspoken Sanders as too liberal. He added that older women may also turn out for Clinton as a matter of principle — they're ready for a female president.
That's one of the major reasons Trine Bech, a 66-year-old attorney in Burlington, backs the former secretary of state. Bech said she remembers the difficulty she had gaining respect as a young trial lawyer in a male-run world. Clinton's fight to break the glass ceiling resonates with her. "She has taken all the abuse that a lot of women our age have taken, that the young people today seem to have forgotten," Bech said, adding that she's struggling to convince her children to support Clinton.
Bech is motivated by more than just gender. Even though Sanders is from Vermont, where Bech has lived off and on since 1977, she said she thinks Clinton is a more pragmatic choice. As president, she'd know how to "get [legislation] through at this time of such divisive political atmosphere," Bech said.
The Sanders campaign itself is satisfied with its operations in the Green Mountain State and hopes the senator's messages will resonate nationwide, said Symone Sanders, his national press secretary. "We are very proud of the support we've garnered in the senator's home state of Vermont," she added.
But to Mitchell Perry, Clinton's history indicates she can deliver on her campaign promises. The 22-year-old Middlebury College student who helps out with the campus Clinton club added that he has a lot of high school friends in the military, so he prioritizes candidates' foreign policy chops.
"When I think of a president in the Situation Room, the one that's going to be making decisions on where our troops go and don't go, I want someone who's had the experience, good and bad," Perry said. "Clinton's the one I would trust the most to make those decisions."
The political science and Chinese major said he thinks Clinton also has likely formed relationships with GOP lawmakers that will help her get laws passed by Congress. Sanders has big ideas, but Clinton is more capable of making the necessary compromises for policy change, Perry said.
Judith Bevans, who was the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party from 2009 to 2011, said she doesn't have any problem with Sanders — she helped elect him to the Senate. But Clinton has shown she's "indomitable," a champion of healthcare issues "long before I even knew there was a Bernie Sanders," Bevans said.
The 75-year-old resident of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont said she hasn't fought with any friends over her 2016 choice. Looking forward, she's of the opinion that both Sanders and Clinton are good candidates who would serve the country well.
"I tell people . . . 'You won't be making a mistake no matter who you vote for,'" Bevans said, then laughed. "I think the big mistake would be to vote for a Republican."