One of the most anticipated presidential elections in history drew Mainers to their polling places in record numbers Tuesday, adding to an already unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast.
It all added up to a comfortable victory by Sen. Barack Obama and perhaps a mandate for the Democratic Party and its mantra of change.
With 53 percent of the votes reported, the Democratic senator from Illinois led Arizona Sen. John McCain 59 percent to 39 percent in Maine, based on unofficial results gathered by the Bangor Daily News. Most news organizations had called Maine for Obama shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m.
It turns out Obama didn’t even need Maine’s four electoral votes. Most new organizations began calling the nationwide race by 11 p.m., signaling a Democratic landslide for the first African American president-elect in history.
“Today is the culmination of nearly two years of a remarkable campaign. Mainers are ready for change. All over the state, people came together to help chart a new course for our country, many who had never registered to vote before and never volunteered on a campaign,” said Toby McGrath, Maine’s campaign director for Obama.
McCain supporters who gathered at a rally at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer had a somber and subdued collective mood even before their candidate conceded the race shortly before 11:30 p.m.
“It’s certain that the trend is clear. It’s a tough night and a disappointing night,” said state Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, McCain’s campaign co-chair for Maine. “But I think we still need to look at this process as a victory for Maine voters.”
At a victory party for Democrats at the Spectacular Event Center, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud spoke to a raucous crowd of supporters and called the presidential results an absolute mandate.
“What we’re seeing in Maine and across the country is huge,” said Michaud, who also won his own race handily. “This entire election is about people wanting change and making it happen.”
He praised the volunteers who helped “put Maine on the map.”
Maine has now voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections, although it had not picked a winner since Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2000 and 2004, respectively, Mainers voted for Al Gore and John Kerry, each of whom went on to lose to President Bush.
Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that divide electoral votes by congressional district, and McCain had hoped to grab at least one of Maine’s four electoral votes by focusing his efforts in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
In Maine, that meant McCain could lose the overall vote but still win one electoral vote if he pulled out a victory in the 2nd Congressional District, a rural district that is thought to be the more conservative of the state’s two districts.
McCain advertised heavily in the district and sent his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her husband there in hopes of swaying voters. But the scenario of split electoral votes has never occurred in the nearly 40 years that the current system has been in place.
Before Maine voters even began arriving at the polls on Tuesday morning, some 227,000 absentee ballots had been returned, far outpacing a record set in 2004.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap made several stops throughout Maine, including a visit to the Bangor Civic Center on Tuesday, to monitor turnout. Despite the record number of voters expected, Dunlap said, only a few minor problems were reported.
“There have been no reports of long lines or waits,” he said. “Certainly the amount of absentee ballots cast helped.”
The first Maine results came before 9 a.m. from Glenwood Plantation in Aroostook County. Its three voters gave Obama a 2-1 lead, which he held well into the evening.
Wanda Thomas, town clerk in Orono, has presided over every presidential election since 1972 and said this year has been far different from anything she has seen.
“There seems to be more excitement, and it’s mostly for the presidential race,” she said.
Anecdotally, young voters appeared to be ushering Obama to a convincing win in Maine.
The typically unreliable voting bloc was out in droves at the University of Maine and at Bangor High School, which facilitated voting for Husson University students.
Sue Hart, registrar of voters for Orono, spent the day at UMaine. Four years ago, the wait time was more than two hours. This year, voters were in and out within a half-hour, she said.
“It’s actually calmer than it has been in the past,” Hart said early Tuesday afternoon.
Libby Shepard, 18, of Amherst said she waited in line about 20 minutes to cast her first-ever ballot for Barack Obama.
“I would have waited all day,” she said. “This is a huge election.”
Nate Wildes, 18, of Cumberland is the student coordinator for UMaine-Uvote, a nonpartisan group that encourages participation and awareness among students.
“Everything has been very smooth,” he said. “We’ve had a constant line but no long wait.”
Ashley Smith, 20, of York and Angie Richard, 22, of Temple are roommates in an on-campus apartment. Both cast ballots for Obama.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel like this was my first opportunity to make a difference with my vote,” she said. “I even took a moment to read through the entire ballot when I was in there, just to kind of savor it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.