Politics & Policy

In Maine, Trump Exposes Cultural Fissures among Whites

Trump speaks at a rally in Portland, Maine, August 4, 2016. (Reuters photo: Eric Thayer)
How can Republicans appeal to poorer, rural white voters without alienating those in affluent, highly educated cities and suburbs?

Something funny is happening in Maine: For the first time ever, the state might split its electoral votes between the two major-party candidates.

Unlike most states, Maine does not award all its electoral votes in a winner-take-all fashion, instead granting two to the statewide winner and one to the winner of each of its congressional districts. Since 1969, when this system was implemented, it has largely remained a quirky afterthought, because the statewide winner has always carried both districts. This year, however, while Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead in the state’s urban first district, which comprises liberal Portland and Augusta, Trump is running ahead in the second, which encompasses all of rural, northern Maine.

The looming political break reflects broader cultural cleavages among America’s white population that this election has brought to the fore. Those cleavages are particularly visible in Maine. The state is overwhelmingly white — 95 percent — but residents in its two congressional districts, one affluent and urban, the other poor and rural, have become increasingly alienated from one another.

That estrangement has had political consequences. In a state once famous for producing moderate Republicans such as Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen, and Olympia Snowe, there have been signs that the electorate is moving in a different direction. Though it is still represented in Washington by politicians who fit the old mold — the Republican Susan Collins and the independent (and former Democrat) Angus King — Maine elected the right-wing firebrand Paul LePage to the governorship in 2010 and reelected soundly him in 2014. LePage was in many ways a proto-Trump, telling the state chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” leaving a political opponent an expletive-laced message, and, most recently, telling a local radio network that the country might need Trump to “show some authoritarian power” in order to restore the rule of law. (LePage later told reporters he meant to say that Trump is authoritative — he commands a presence, while Clinton does not.)

Running against then-state-senate president Libby Mitchell in 2010, LePage campaigned under the slogan, “I’d rather have my foot in my mouth than Libby Mitchell’s hand in my pocket.” If elected, he promised, he would tell President Obama to “go to hell.”

He won, largely on the strength of his support among voters in the second district. Today, the political divide between the two districts is starker than ever. Clinton led the first district by 18 points in a Colby College/Survey USA poll conducted last month, before the publication of a profanity-laced 2005 video in which Trump brags about having tried (and failed) to sleep with a married woman and about his prowess with women generally, who let him “do anything” because of his celebrity. The leaked video sent Trump’s campaign into free fall. In the same poll, Trump led the second district by ten points — a whopping 28-point difference. The latest poll, conducted in the wake of the tape’s publication by the Democratic-leaning Maine People’s Resource Center, has Trump holding on to a one-point lead in the second district.

Regardless, a significant shift is under way. President Obama won both districts in 2012, running 13 points better in the first district than he did in the second, but if the polls are to be believed, that 13-point spread may have increased by as much as 15 points this year as Trump has overtaken Clinton in the second district.

Some Mainers have dubbed the radically different districts “the two Maines.” Others call the northern second district, the largest district east of the Mississippi, “real Maine.” But the growing split between the state’s urban, liberal south and its rural, conservative north is a microcosm of the broader cultural divide that Trump’s candidacy has helped to expose among white voters: between the city and the countryside, the college-educated and those without degrees, the haves and the have-nots.

Residents of the state’s two congressional districts, one affluent and urban, the other poor and rural, have become increasingly alienated from one another.

“I think Maine, like the rest of the country, is in a transition, and there are pockets that are looking forward to that transition, they’re optimistic about the future, and there are pockets that are worried about it,” says Dan Shea, the director of the Goldberg Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College. “There’s a lot of working-class white voters in Maine who say, ‘Both parties have let us down.’ They’re attracted to Trump and Paul LePage because they’re so different. They seem to be breaking that mold.”

Most residents of the first district fall into the forward-looking camp. Portland, the state’s largest city, has become an economic hub. Its population is rising and its employment growth outpaces that of any other region of the state. “In terms of where the state is going, certainly Portland is becoming a bigger and bigger and more important piece of that,” says Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report. Its residents are richer and better educated than those of the second district, which is full of mill towns that have been hollowed out by competition from abroad. Today, over 37 percent of first-district residents are college graduates, compared with just 23 percent of second-district residents. The median income in the first district is $59,400, well above the national average of $51,700; in the second district, it’s $44,500. 

These demographic factors help explain why the second district has been trending away from Democrats: When John McCain withdrew from Michigan in 2008, he transferred resources there, and it’s the whitest, most working-class district Obama won in 2012. Given that Trump has accelerated the exodus of blue-collar voters from the Democratic party, Obama may be the last Democrat to win northern Maine for a generation.

Local referenda have helped drive a cultural wedge between the two districts. This year, Proposition 3, which would close the so-called gun-show loophole, will appear on the statewide ballot in November. If the liberals in southern Maine are kayakers and mountain bikers, the state’s northern residents are hunters and fishermen. “You drive in the northern part of the state and you see, ‘Vote No on 3’ everywhere,” says Shea. “You drive in the southern part of the state and you see, ‘Vote Yes on 3.’” In 2014, a referendum to curb bear hunting elicited passions on both sides. It was narrowly defeated thanks to heavy turnout in the second district, which also helped to propel LePage to reelection.

#related#Maine’s cultural divides are not unusual, even if its proportional allocation of electoral votes is. “Every governor, every senator, has to balance the differences where they have these very different population centers — they go to Philadelphia but still have to be taken seriously in Erie,” says Walter. That has been especially true in a year with two polarizing major-party nominees who have exacerbated intra-state regional rifts. In Maine, Walter says, “you can argue that Collins and King reflect Maine more than Trump and LePage in that the one thing Collins and King do is that they unite the first and second districts, whereas Clinton and Trump expose the differences.”

Republicans, who have eyed the second congressional district for years, now face the challenge of figuring out how to win there and in other districts like it without alienating voters in the country’s growing population centers. Though Trump may have given the GOP a blueprint for wooing the former, he is performing dismally with the latter. Demographically speaking, this will be one of the most vexing problems facing the Republican party after the November election: how to meld the politics of grievance and despair, legitimately felt, with the politics of growth and opportunity. Trump’s success in Maine is only half the answer.

—​ Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.

Editor’s note: This article has been emended since it first appeared.

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