July 30, 2012

Can Maine find political relevance before the presidential election in November?

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine and New Hampshire aren't just neighbors. They might as well be siblings.

Both states have slightly more than 1.3 million residents, with similar demographics. Politically speaking, Pine Tree State and Granite State voters may tilt toward one party at any given time, yet they also pride themselves on their Yankee independence.

However, when it comes to attention from presidential candidates, the two states couldn't be more dissimilar, despite the fact that each accounts for four Electoral College votes.

Always important in the primary race, New Hampshire in 2012 already has been labeled as a key "swing state" likely to draw major attention from President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney. As for Maine, well ...

"New Hampshire has shown a propensity to turn on a dime. Maine has not," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and co-producer of its popular "Crystal Ball" election forecasting.

Mainers are, by now, probably accustomed to their role as just another spectator to the presidential political frenzy across the border (and many would likely say they are content to keep it that way).

However, as the nation barrels head-on into what is expected to be another close race for the White House, it is worth asking a simple question: Is Maine relevant in 2012? If not right now, can it be by November?

Ask the Obama and Romney campaigns and you will, of course, get the same answer: Yes, Maine is important, given the potential for a squeaker of a race.

Several factors in play this year -- combined with a vote-counting process that makes Maine unique -- truly could give the Pine Tree State a somewhat larger role in 2012.

Public opinion polls, including one commissioned by The Portland Press Herald in late June, show Obama leading Romney among Maine voters.

The first reason that Maine could rise to something more than a simple afterthought in this year's election is an often-overlooked quirk in the state's election process.

Maine is one of two states -- Nebraska being the other -- where the presidential vote is not necessarily winner-take-all. The Pine Tree State contributes four electors to the Electoral College, which actually determines who wins the presidency.

Unlike in 48 states, Maine can split its electors if the majority of voters in each separate congressional district support different candidates. So if Obama picked up the majority of voters in the 1st District and Romney won the 2nd, each candidate would receive one elector. Whoever wins the total statewide vote then would pick up the two at-large electors, resulting in a 3-1 split.

While such a scenario never has played out in the 40 years since the policy has been in place in Maine, Nebraska had its first split vote in 2008. Conditions could be ripe for it to happen here this year because of the 2nd District's more conservative bent and the potential for the most competitive congressional race there in years.

"Obama would certainly be favored in the 2nd Congressional District, but I think Romney has a chance there," said longtime election watcher and political science professor Jim Melcher, at the University of Maine at Farmington. "A lot of the national reports don't remember that Maine can split its electoral vote by congressional district, so they tend to just lump the whole state in under Obama. I think he is going to carry the state, but I think the 2nd District is at least potentially competitive."

Party leaders are certainly aware of the possibility for a split, although they not surprisingly disagree about who would walk away with three electors and who would get one in such a situation.

(Continued on page 2)

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