AUGUSTA, Maine — As in many states across the country, Democrats in Maine are gaining strength while Republicans are losing members, and in a close election, political observers believe that could make a difference.
“It very well could have an impact,” said University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried, “because the increase in registration is coupled with a very robust get-out-the-vote effort that will be launched.”
She said that traditionally, Democrats have had a better get-out-the-vote effort than Republicans, and this year they have a coordinated campaign effort that started last January as part of Democratic National Party Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state election strategy. The Democrats’ unified campaign has more than 100 full-time organizers.
“Party ID matters,” said University of Southern Maine political science professor Robert Klotz. “A key finding from political science is that it’s going to help the Democratic candidates if there are more people identifying themselves as Democrats.”
He agreed with Fried that a big unknown is how successful the get-out-the-vote effort of the Democrats will be in identifying supporters and making sure they vote. He said the closer an election, the more important the effort becomes.
The numbers from the Secretary of State’s Office indicate that for every two new Democrats since November 2006, the GOP was losing an enrolled voter. There were 309,525 registered Democrats in Maine and by June 2008, that had increased to 319,690 registered Democrats. Over the same time, registered Republicans decreased from 279,641 to 273,686.
The largest block of potential voters, the independent or unenrolled, also increased, going from 375,235 to 379,024. The Green Independent Party members dipped slightly, from 29,347 in 2006 to 29,160 in June of this year.
“This is a trend that started with the election of Ed Muskie as governor in 1954,” said Bowdoin College government professor Chris Potholm. “The Democrats have been gaining and the Republicans have been losing enrollment, but what is more important is how people vote, and they don’t always vote their party, certainly not here in Maine.”
He said Maine voters are “ticket splitters” and often cross party lines. He said the attitude of voting for the person not the party has resulted in Maine electing two independent governors in recent years and a split congressional delegation.
For example, in 2006, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe won re-election over two candidates, a Democrat and an independent, while garnering 74 percent of the total vote. In the same election, voters in the 1st Congressional District reelected Democrat Tom Allen over a Republican and an independent with 61 percent of the vote. In the 2nd Congressional District Democrat Mike Michaud was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote over his Republican opponent.
Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel said the registration statistics do not reflect an important characteristic of the new voters. He believes most were young and attracted by the caucus effort of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois.
“Obama was organized in every town and every ward in the state,” he said. “That organization has stayed in place. The Democratic Party is better organized in Maine than I have ever seen it before, and I think that it is true across the country.”
Maisel believes there will be a surge of younger voters who will change the traditional demographics of elections.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, agrees that Obama has stirred interest among younger voters in Maine, but cautioned they may not be enough to trigger a broad Democratic win from the top to bottom of the ballot.
“There have been many times when the Democrats have held a large or a significant registration edge and lost the election anyway,” he said. “It’s a little sign, but I wouldn’t say it is a sign of a tidal wave moving in the Democrats’ direction, not in a state like this.”
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer agrees the registration trend will have an impact on contests in Maine, but he is not sure how significant that impact will be.
“I think it will affect the presidential race,” he said. “I am not sure how much it will have on the Senate or congressional races.”
Brewer said GOP nominee John McCain is “not your typical Republican” and may draw more independents than some might expect. Brewer agreed with the other political scientists that the party registration and get-out-the-vote efforts will play a major role if contests are close.
The most recent published polls in Maine show Obama leading McCain by double digits, but it is closer in the more conservative 2nd Congressional District. Maine allocates its four electoral votes by assigning one per congressional district and two going to the overall winner.
Fried said if the national electoral vote is close, Maine’s method of allocating its electoral votes could make the state’s 2nd District a battleground in the presidential race.
“But how that will affect the other races is hard to predict,” she said.