As Iowa goes, so goes Maine?

Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 4:48 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2012, at 9:40 a.m.

Maine may become the next Iowa. No, Maine’s not going to trade the pine for Iowa’s state tree, the oak. Nor will the Pine Tree State lose its seafood and bean suppahs. But in presidential nomination politics, we may say “As Iowa goes, so goes Maine.”

At the conclusion of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the state Republican party announced that Mitt Romney had prevailed by an exceedingly slim margin. However, after close scrutiny of town results, Romney’s eight vote win turned into a 34-vote deficit, with Rick Santorum leading.

National media arrived in Maine just before the caucuses. Journalists heard the candidates take questions, interviewed Mainers and stopped by a few caucuses. And they were there when Mitt Romney was declared the winner by just three percentage points.

Romney, who won Maine in 2008 with over 50 percent, received under 40 percent in 2012. But the news was welcome to his supporters, since Romney had been slipping in the national polls, lost three caucuses earlier in the week, and the media openly questioned his front-runner status. Said Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting, “It’s good news. I’m hopeful this ends Romney’s little slide.”

As in Iowa, the caucus result is not yet clear. Even more, Maine’s situation involves more than the vote tally. What’s happened so far is stranger and more complicated.

You see, the Maine Republican Party announced its results without including votes from all of Washington County and part of Hancock County. Due to weather conditions, some caucuses were not held and no votes were available from those locations.

What makes this initial count a problem is that the party doesn’t ever intend to include those votes. Although some towns never caucused, they are just out of luck. What started as a postponement turned into a cancellation. Areas that all political observers believe favor Ron Paul over Mitt Romney were just not going to have their votes included in the state total.

(On the one hand, deciding not to count a county and a half seems like an odd thing for a political party that, during debates about Election Day registration and voter photo ID, stated that they took their positions because of their concerns with the integrity of the ballot. Then again, those policies would have restricted voters’ access to the vote and impact on the results. But I digress.)

These caucuses pick delegates to the state convention at which delegates to the national convention are chosen. According to the Washington Post, “scores of Paul supporters … lingered at Saturday’s caucuses well after the straw poll in order to cast ballot in the state delegate race,” and then the party officials announced that, due to discrepancies in the tallies, these results were voided. Moreover, a blogger at As Maine Goes reports spreadsheet errors that appear to favor Romney. Waldo County results are incomplete. Ron Paul’s supporters are livid, with some claiming a set-up by Republican leaders.

Scheduling, organizational, mathematical and other normal errors are the most likely causes of all this. Mistakes happen, but it’s hard to defend not including results from Down East.

What happens next is up to the Maine Republican party. Party leaders may claim that it doesn’t matter what the caucuses show, since caucuses don’t determine who will cast ballots at the Republican National Convention. If they make that argument, they have a reasonable point.

But what is at stake is less about procedure than about politics and trust. Announcing “good news” for Romney may have stemmed “Romney’s little slide,” but it comes at a price for the candidate and the party.

When nomination contests go on a long time, they can become nasty and divisive. In 2008, it took time for Democrats to come together after an extended fight between candidates Clinton and Obama. The same was true for Republicans in 1976, with lingering bitterness between supporters of Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Gerald Ford.

Sometimes the gap remains and the winning candidate finds he has inherited the wind, having won a prize already tarnished. A political party can likewise undermine itself. And, in this case, our state’s political reputation is also at stake.

Iowa’s Republican party fixed its problem. Will Maine’s?

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ASFried and on her blog, pollways.com.

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