How Maine could go for Kerry and Bush.

A guide to the swing states.
Aug. 20 2004 4:40 PM

Maine

The state that could go for Kerry and Bush.

Up in Maine, taciturn Yankees are going a little bit nuts. Last week, I was sitting in the empty ballroom of Portland's Eastland Park Hotel when one of them came bustling into the room.

"Can I have that? Can I have that?!" He jabbed his finger at a Kerry-Edwards sign still hanging on the podium where Ann Richards had just given a press conference. Before I could shrug, he was detaching the poster, corner by Scotch-taped corner. As he jogged away, he shouted, "There is a man in front of my gallery with a Bush-Cheney sign and I had to get—" He was out the door.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

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His fervor startled me, but—after the four days I spent in Maine last week—his impending face-off with a Bush voter did not. Everywhere I went Mainers were confronting other Mainers about their plans for Nov. 2. When I was visiting the Kennebunkport Democrats, who've been selling T-shirts that say "Kerrybunkport," a woman stopped by for a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker. "Some jerks put a Bush-Cheney sticker over my old one," she explained. "I drive an '84 Nissan. I'm not voting for Bush." When I spoke with a Marine recruiter named Jay Stevens at the Bangor State Fair, he described how he'd been passing out Semper Fi stickers earlier in the day when a guy came by, said, "I've got a sticker for you," and tossed one that read "Bush Lied" down on the table. "He just walked off, laughing," said Stevens, who plans to vote for Bush. "He wasn't laughing when I caught up with him."

Fisticuffs are not yet the norm (I suspect Stevens' boast was mostly bravado), but Maine is a battleground state. Al Gore won by five points here in 2000. The double-digit lead John Kerry held in the early summer has shrunk to three or four points in the most recent polls. This margin could be trouble for the Democrat since Maine is unique among the swing states: It's the only one that could go for Kerry and Bush.

Thanks to a quirk in its state laws, Maine does not award all its electoral votes (there are four of them) to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes in the state. Instead, the candidate who wins the popular vote gets two electoral votes. The third electoral vote goes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the 1st Congressional District and the fourth electoral vote to whoever wins the 2nd. In a very close race, the state could split its electoral vote 3-1, which makes Maine the only swing state that can truly swing both ways. (Nebraska, a mortal lock for Bush, has the same system.) Since this convoluted method was adopted in 1969, presidential candidates have never shared Maine's electoral spoils. But in November, Bush and Kerry might.

An anti-Bush mural in Portland
An anti-Bush mural in Portland

That's because there are two Maines, as residents hasten to point out. The 1st District stretches along the southern coast, from Kittery to Kennebunkport to Portland (a liberal city rife with bookstores, boutiques, art galleries, and Internet cafes), past the fishing towns and tony summer homes that speckle the long rocky fingers of the coast. Driving through it, you see busy shopping centers, out-of-state cars laden with kayaks and mountain bikes, and antique shops everywhere: Tourism is the state's biggest industry.

The 2nd District, a wooded knob of land that juts up into Canada and across to the state's northern shoreline, is enormous—bigger than New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts combined. It's much more rural, and much poorer, than the southern half of the state. People here are typically loggers, mill workers, or potato farmers. The further north of Portland I went, the more frequently logging trucks lumbered past. In 2000, Gore won comfortably in the 1st District, but his margin of victory in the 2nd was much narrower—only one percentage point, or 5,660 votes. It's quite possible that Bush could swing this district, and if he did, he'd pocket one electoral vote.

Hunters like Ralph Sleeper, who runs the Fine Line Gun Shop in Poland, in western Maine, could be key to a Bush victory in the 2nd. "I don't like Kerry, myself," says Sleeper, who voted for Bush in 2000. "George has got his problems, but ... I think the Democrats are more interested in taking away our firearms rights." When I mention that Kerry hunts, Sleeper is dismissive: "They all say that. But I know Hillary and that whole other crew there, they'll take everything."

Though Sleeper says he voted in the last election, hunters in Maine have long had a tantalizing reason not to—deer season usually opens just before Election Day. (This year, it begins Oct. 30.) But several pro-hunting groups are making an additional effort to get hunters to the polls this year. That's because there's an initiative on the ballot to ban bear-baiting, the method used by most bear hunters in Maine. To bait a bear, Sleeper says, "You take a barrel of nice donuts, like from Dunkin' Donuts, anything with honey or molasses on it." Then you place it in the woods, climb a nearby tree, take a bottle to pee in, and wait for a bear to come sniffing around. Advocates say it's the most humane and efficient way to kill enough bears to control Maine's bear population (there are currently 23,000 in the state). But as Sleeper sees it, "Those people down in Portland, they don't hunt, they don't know anything about bears, and they'll sign everything." If Maine's sportsmen—most of whom live in the 2nd District—come out in unusual numbers to oppose the bear-baiting ban, their votes could work in Bush's favor.

Those people down in Portland (where an enormous red-and-black mural depicts George Bush as a maniacal puppet) do sound more inclined to vote for Kerry. "We've all had four years of this crap," said Cliff Roy, a 65-year-old hot-dog vendor in Portland's Monument Square. Roy, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, doesn't much like Kerry ("He turned his back on the vet"), but he hopes the Democrat will boost the economy: "Let's face it. I'm supposed to be retired." Jean, a farmer from nearby Gorham, said she'll vote for Kerry because she opposed the war. She also spends her winters caring for people with Parkinson's, so she likes Kerry's position on stem-cell research. Because Maine has a significant elderly population, the stem-cell issue could play well for Kerry statewide.