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“The Not-So-Independent Variable”: Revisited

November 6, 2010

Independents: Don't count them out yet.


As originally seen on the HPRgument.

Well, I guess I underestimated my own state’s independence. In my blog post last month about independent gubernatorial candidates in today’s political climate, I crassly proclaimed that neither Massachusetts candidate Tim Cahill nor Maine candidate Eliot Cutler (’68) were considered by voters as “practical choices.” As Tuesday’s results reveal, I correctly predicted Cahill’s inability to garner significant support, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Cutler, who fell a mere 10,500 votes short of winning the election.

I did, however, get one thing right when I stated that “[i]ndependents still have a greater influence on the outcome of an election than any other factor.” Cahill’s impact came during the debacle with his running mate, who defected from Cahill’s ticket and endorsed Republican Charlie Baker. Cahill then sued former top strategists, alleging they were in cahoots with Baker’s team.

Cutler’s effect in Maine was much more tangible. In a poll released on October 19 by Pan Atlantic SMS, Cutler’s support was at a modest 14%. From there, however, his support ballooned. The two weeks between October 19 and Election Day are an exemplary case model for anyone studying how to run, or not run, a campaign.

While Republican (and eventual victor) Paul LePage’s support remained constant from October 19 to November 2, fluctuating between 33% and 40% and never dipping below 38.5% in the final week, support for Democrat Libby Mitchell plunged from 28% t0 24%. Although “plunged” seems a dramatic choice of vocabulary for a drop of a mere 4 points, when one factors in that during this time span 18.2% of voters switched their support from “Undecided” to one of the three candidates, the plunge is more noticeable.

A host of reasons contributed to Mitchell’s sharp drop in support, which ended with her receiving under 20% of the vote on Election Day, and Cutler’s startling gains in support, culminating in 36.5% of the electorate. Many have been quick to pin the blame on the Maine Democratic Party* who, in the days of heightened intensity immediately prior to the elections, sent out two allegedly xenophobic mailers negatively depicting Cutler’s business relationship with China and a third that stretched the truth about Cutler’s environmental record. Others have blamed the bitter back-and-forth between LePage and Mitchell for turning voters off from voting partisan.

Whatever the reason for the onset of Mitchell’s slide, the one-week period immediately prior to the election, and especially the two days immediately before when voters were informed by a Maine People’s Resource Center poll that Cutler had surpassed Mitchell for the first time, serves as a prime example of the “wildfire” effect in politics. Maybe there have been other terms keyed to explain this phenomenon (“domino effect” doesn’t seem to do it justice), but my argument is that once Maine’s large community of liberals and anti-Tea Party moderates realized Cutler was favored over Mitchell, many previous Mitchell supporters jumped ship and lined up behind Cutler. Voters decide to vote in favor of math over their conscience.

One of my Facebook friends, and a first-time voter this year, posted a status imploring her friends to “vote based on who they think has the strongest chance of beating LePage.” I certainly don’t approve of this mentality, as it often leads voters to not select their favorite candidate, but it clearly has widespread appeal in Maine. The groundswell of support that developed for Cutler November 1-2 alone was greater than the support he had experienced throughout the rest of his campaign in its entirety.

I may have been wrong when I said independent candidates don’t stand a chance in today’s partisan climate. Indeed, if campaigning had dragged on for one additional day, I have no doubt that Cutler could have easily bridged the 1.8% gap that separated he and LePage on Election Day.

The Maine election does, however, provide a clear illumination of the volatility of elections today. Whereas in the past voters were more likely to vote party-line straight down the ballot, more voters today have stepped outside that realm and are beginning to “affect the political dynamic.”

What this means for organizations like the Maine Democratic Party, or its Republican counterpart for that matter, is unclear. Maybe partisans will have to begin rethinking the theory of pressuring party-affiliated candidates to appeal to their party’s base and, instead, the middle-ground voter. Maybe, as Phil Keisling suggested in a New York Times’ op-ed, we should “abolish party primary elections” altogether.

Whatever the solution, the Maine gubernatorial election on Tuesday certainly opened a few eyes and returned to the discussion board the importance of independents in elections. I just wish those eyes could have been opened a day earlier, because then I might not have this guy as the governor of my home state…

*For the sake of full disclosure, I spent two months as an intern with the Maine Democratic Party last summer.

Photo credit: Portland Press Herald

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 6, 2010 8:26 pm

    One of the retrospective ironies of the 2010 Maine Gubernatorial election is that – in the weeks leading up to the election – Maine voters were consistently told that LePage was the odds-on favorite to win the race. And he, in fact, went on to win it. Maine voters will remember going to bed on election night with LePage and Cutler neck and neck, but in the ensuing wee morning hours LePage pulled ahead and established a close to two point victory. Close, but not all THAT close, especially given the clear division between urban and rural voters. Close elections warrant recounts – and instead of a recount Cutler was giving a lunchtime concession speech the day following the election. While LePage failed (by a longshot) to reach a plurality, the polls and the prognosticators were – in fact – right. LePage did win, and he did so convincingly.

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