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.

Peter Cianchette, chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Maine
Peter Cianchette, chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Maine

Peter Cianchette, the general chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Maine, scoffs at the notion that the president is after one measly vote in the northern half of the state. "It's my job to secure four electoral votes," he told me. "We're polling well throughout the state of Maine." Although it's Cianchette's job to say things like, "We're polling well throughout the state of Maine," he's right that the 1st District isn't a lock for Democrats. (He should know. When he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002, he won the 1st District, where he lives, and his Democratic opponent won the 2nd.) That's because in Maine, nothing is a lock for anybody.

In many swing states, you get the sense that entrenched Republicans are pitted against die-hard Democrats in a tug of war that sometimes pulls the state slightly to the left and sometimes pulls it slightly to the right (or, as Timothy Noah put it in his piece about Ohio, that the swing state is comprised of "a collection of regions whose distinctive identities cancel each other out"). But in Maine, entrenched Republicans and die-hard Democrats are outnumbered by independents, who make up 39 percent of the state's voters. And when that many votes are in play for each election, things get notably weird.

Maine, for example, has had independent governors for 12 of the past 30 years. H. Ross Perot had his best showings in Maine: In 1992, he won 30 percent of the vote, taking second place and beating hometown honey George H.W. Bush; in 1996, he won 14 percent. In 2000, Nader won 6 percent of the vote. (More on that later.) The 2nd congressional seat is currently held by a pro-life Democrat, but it was held by a pro-choice Republican as recently as 1994. And Maine is devoted to its senior senator, the moderate Republican Olympia Snowe. Every single person I spoke to in Maine was a fan—I wouldn't be surprised if they regularly send her roses and kittens and first-born children. "She really represents Maine," I heard, from Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. Maine voters like Snowe's moderate politics—she's your typical Yankee Republican (one of the last of the breed), fiscally conservative and socially liberal—and they also admire her willingness, on occasion, to tell Republican leaders to shove it. "Olympia," they say, "doesn't just vote the party line."

Herein lies the secret of Maine's swingability: When its voters go to the polls, they don't just vote the party line. Most states make that claim, but in Maine it's actually true. Of course, Maine has its fair share of what Doug Hodgkin, a retired Bates political science professor, calls "hidden partisans"—people who think it's fashionable to call themselves independents but who consistently vote red or blue. But in general, he says, "the independents are more likely to be ticket-splitters." In Maine, people frequently dole their votes out to multiple parties: In 2002, for example, when the liberal 1st District went for the Republican Cianchette in the governor's race, it also elected a Democrat to the House and a Republican to the Senate. And many of the Mainers who align themselves with Snowe—more environmentally inclined than the national GOP, but more averse to taxation than your average Dem—head into election season without knowing quite how they'll vote.

In other swing states, Slate reporters have had to hunt high and low for voters who have changed their minds or who have doubts. In Maine, they're everywhere. Rick Pare, who said he was a professor at the University of Maine in Orono, voted for Gore in 2000. When I met him, he was registering voters for the GOP at the Bangor State Fair. He plans to vote for Bush this year because of the war in Iraq: "We need to let him finish the job he started." A woman rewiring a chandelier in the Kennebunkport antique shop where she works explained that she voted for Bush in 2000 but is leaning toward Kerry this time. "It just feels so bad out there, you know? It feels like things have gotten worse." Roger Wheeler, a logger based in Newry, is wavering because of John Ashcroft: "I think 50 years ago he would have been a Nazi." Wheeler is a registered independent who usually votes Republican in national elections. He was ready to vote for a Democrat this time around, but he won't vote for Kerry, who doesn't talk enough about his own plans. "I'm not totally brain-dead even if I am a logger. I need him to tell me what he's going to do for me and my family. Yeah, we got into Iraq, but what are you going to do about it?"

Hot-dog vendor Cliff Roy
Hot-dog vendor Cliff Roy

Further testament to Maine's distrust of the Republican and Democratic parties is the strength of the state's Green Party, one of the most active in the country. In 2000, aggressive campaigning by the Greens here helped Nader win 6 percent of the vote in the state. (He did equally well in the 1st and 2nd districts.) I spoke with Ben Meiklejohn, who helped run the Nader campaign in 2000 and finished up a term as co-chair of the state Greens earlier this year. Although he resents the notion that Nader stole votes from Gore in the last election ("You don't steal votes, you earn them," he says, with the practiced air of a man who's made this case before), he estimates that 80 percent or 90 percent of Maine's Greens will likely vote for Kerry in November.

The weebling and wobbling that's prevalent in Maine makes it difficult to predict who will win the state. (Sportsmen for Bush! Naderites for Kerry! Everyone else up for grabs!) But perhaps it also helps explain why the people of Maine are so avidly conducting the election-based sticker warfare I noticed all over. When you know that your neighbor is actively considering his vote, it seems that much more worthwhile to get up in his face with your candidate's sign. After all, you never know what will change his mind.

Another possibility: The people of Maine are conducting sticker warfare because they are fantastic citizens. The state regularly gets props from civic-culture buffs for its high voter turnout in national elections. (First in the country in 1992 and 1996, second only to Minnesota in 2000, when 67 percent of Maine's voting-age population turned out. The national average that year was 51 percent.) Perhaps Mainers are having more arguments because they're just more politically engaged than the rest of us.

In any event, some political reformers think we should be taking more of our cues from Maine. Proponents of revamping the Electoral College have suggested that every state adopt Maine's peculiar electoral vote-splitting scheme. At first, I thought this was a brilliant idea. Although vote-splitting sounds bizarre, it actually makes a lot of sense—it's a thoughtful way to ensure that the electoral votes Maine casts more closely reflect the wishes of its people. But then I found this Web site, on which sports statistics guru Jeff Sagarin figured out how the 2000 presidential election would have been decided if all states used the Maine method. Turns out Gore would have been whupped. Ah well. Perhaps there's a better way.