Electoral College 2012: How a Presidential Poll in Maine Could Signal Possible Election Day Chaos

Many decades ago, there was a saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” In early American electoral history, the state of Maine gained a reputation as a remarkable predictor of the national political pulse. This is a trend that stopped dead in its tracks right around the New Deal, with Maine voting against Franklin Roosevelt in four consecutive elections, and selecting the losing candidate in a astonishing number of presidential races since. As a longtime observer of Maine politics, Kenneth Palmer notes that “we should have stopped with William Henry Harrison.” In this race, however, “As Maine goes…” could take on a wholly new meaning.

It’s the home stretch of the presidential election. Though most polls show Barack Obama with a slight edge in the electoral counts, many swing states such as Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Colorado are still within the statistical margin of error, and an Election Day surprise cannot be ruled out. Yet while national focus has been directed toward the swing states, it could be Maine that plays the decisive role in such an outcome.

Maine, along with Nebraska, is one of only two states that employ the “congressional district method” of doling out electoral votes to the candidates. Maine’s four electoral votes are “split” in the following manner: two to the statewide winner of the popular vote, one to the winner of the 1stcongressional district, and one to the winner of the 2ndcongressional district. Obama can rest assured that he will handily win the electoral votes from the statewide race and the 1stdistrict (which encompasses the most populated, and consistently Democratic, area of the state in Southern Maine). What is more difficult to predict is who will emerge victorious in 2nddistrict.

It’s not uncommon for locals to a reference a phenomenon known as the “Two Maines.” The starkest divides in Maine politics are not purely ideological. They’re also geographical. The 2nd district encompasses the vast but sparsely populated central and northern counties.  It is considerably poorer, more rural, less diverse, and more conservative than the 1st district. These voters here are likely harder hit by downturn in the economy, with a median income roughly $10,000 below that of the 1st district.  Yet while these individuals are more likely to be suffering economically, there’s also a strong libertarian presence in the 2nd district. Voters here often harbor great skepticism towards more expansive government, a fervent belief in individualism, and disdain for entitlements or “handouts.”

The 2nd district also tends to be more conservative on social issues. This could prove crucial in this election. Mainers are being asked to vote a ballot initiative, Maine Question 1, which if approved, would legally recognize same-sex marriage. While this question may drive more progressive Mainers to the polls in the 1st district, it could have the opposite effect of energizing and mobilizing opponents of the initiative in the 2nd district. If this does happen, the voters turning out in larger numbers would be far more likely to vote for Romney than Obama. Further questions have been raised by the fact that a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore our Future, has targeted $300,000 towards the 2nd district in an attempt to sway the outcome in Romney’s favor. 

With all this said, such an outcome is extremely unlikely. A poll conducted by Kimball Political Consulting just a few days ago shows Obama with a 5% lead in the district, and favorability ratings that lean towards the president. Furthermore, such an outcome would be truly historic, as no election has seen a split electoral vote since Maine adopted the method in 1972. However, as recent history has shown us, strange things can happen on Election Day. With the Electoral College so close, a surprise in Maine’s 2nd district could be decisive in determining the national outcome.