Magazine | November 7, 2016, Issue

Maine Divided

(Roman Genn)
Its diverging population is poised to split its electoral votes

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

Unlike most states, Maine, which awards four electoral votes, does not dole them out in a winner-take-all fashion. Instead, it grants two to the statewide winner and one to the winner of each of its two 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; Maine has spoken with a unified voice.

This year is shaping up differently. Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead in the state’s urban first district, which comprises liberal Portland and Augusta, where political opinion runs to the left of Bernie Sanders. But Donald Trump was crushing her in the second — which encompasses all of rural, northern Maine — before the publication of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape and the subsequent allegations from several women that Trump had sexually harassed them. Even after those developments, he holds a slim lead.

The potential political break reflects broader cultural cleavages among America’s white population that the 2016 election has exposed not just in Maine but across the country. Those cleavages are particularly visible in Maine, though, where an overwhelmingly white population is divided neatly into two congressional districts, one affluent and urban, the other poor and rural, that have become increasingly alienated from each other.

That estrangement is expressing itself politically. 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 new direction. While still represented in the Senate by politicians of the old mold, the Republican Susan Collins and the independent Angus King, Mainers elected the right-wing firebrand Paul LePage to the governorship in 2010 and again in 2014.

He was in many ways a proto-Trump: Running against Libby Mitchell, then the president of the state senate, 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.” Since then, LePage has told the state chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt”; left a Democratic state senator an expletive-laced voice message; and, most recently, told a local radio network that the country may need Trump to “show some authoritarian power” in order to restore the rule of law.

LePage won both races on the strength of his support among voters in northern Maine. In 2010, he lost in just four of Maine’s 16 counties, all of them in the south, while carrying the majority of the ten and a half counties that compose the northern, second district by double digits. A September poll from the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center had LePage’s approval rating upside down in the first district, with 33 percent viewing him positively and 61 percent expressing disapproval, and right side up in the second, with 47 percent of those surveyed saying they approve of his performance and 45 percent saying they disapprove.

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 in September, before the Access Hollywood–video scandal erupted. In the same poll, Trump led the second district by ten points — a whopping 28-point spread between the two. The latest poll, conducted in the wake of the tape’s publication by the Democratic-leaning Maine People’s Resource Center, has Clinton up 17 in the first district and Trump clinging to a one-point lead in the second, an 18-point divide.

That represents a radical shift. The second district hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush won the state in 1988. President Obama won both districts in 2012, running 13 points better in the first district than he did in the second.

Some Mainers have dubbed the districts, with their differing politics and cultures, “the two Maines”; others call the northern, second district, geographically the largest 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 revealed among white voters: between the city and the countryside, the college-educated and those without degrees, the haves and the have-nots.

“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 in Waterville. “There’s a lot of working-class white voters in Maine that 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. The population of the Portland metropolitan area is, after Boston, increasing faster than that of any other in New England, 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 once-thriving mill towns that have been hollowed out by competition from abroad. 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 to explain why the second district has been trending away from Democrats. When John McCain withdrew from Michigan in 2008, after deciding the Rust Belt state was out of reach, he transferred campaign resources to Maine. In 2012, it was the whitest, most working-class district President Obama carried. 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 to accelerate the split. 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.’” The University of New Hampshire survey showed that first-district residents support the initiative by a whopping 69-to-25 margin.

Maine’s cultural divides are not unusual, even if its allocation of electoral votes is. For Republicans, who have eyed the second congressional district for years, the challenge is now to figure 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. 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.

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