Voters in November will cast their votes according to more than just their preference for Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
In political science terms, an entire “calculus of voting” will factor into the final decision Maine voters make at the polls. The election will be an exercise in “voter utility.”
Maine’s gubernatorial race this year provides a textbook example of how the reality of a three-way contest in which the winner needs only a plurality influences voters’ ultimate decision. A three-way race isn’t new in Maine, and it isn’t new in the world of political science.
In 1951, French sociologist Maurice Duverger wrote in his book “Political Parties” that an election system in which victory requires only a plurality effectively limits the political system to two dominant parties.
Subsequent studies built on Duverger’s thinking, introducing formal theories about the “calculus of voting” that often leads voters to cast a strategic vote — in which a voter abandons his or her first-choice candidate when that candidate doesn’t appear viable in hopes of preventing the victory of the voter’s least favorite candidate.
In the 1980s and 1990s, political scientists coined the term “Duvergerian Equilibrium,” which ensures that only the two candidates considered viable will come out in a competitive position. Other political scientists have attempted to identify mathematically which voters might cast a strategic vote rather than a vote for his or her most preferred candidate.
Cutler, the independent without the support of a political party behind him, acknowledges the probability of the Duvergerian Equilibrium in Maine’s gubernatorial race. (The concept doesn’t apply when there’s little knowledge in the general public about which candidates are in first or second place. That’s clearly not the case at this point in the race.)
That’s why Cutler is offering a deal with Maine voters.
“If you think that I will be the best governor, stick with me,” he said in a recent email to campaign supporters. “If, on the day of the election, you don’t think I can win, you have my blessing to vote for someone else.”
Cutler is right to offer this “deal” with voters — though voters who cast their votes strategically might be more likely to cement their decision a few weeks in advance, rather than the day of the election.
Election Day is still more than five months away, and all candidates who have qualified for the ballot deserve a chance to prove to voters that they are best suited to lead, that they have the most deliberately thought-out and best articulated policy proposals, and that they have the right vision for Maine.
While some might assume that the race’s dynamics are already settled, what’s less well known is how committed the supporters of each candidate are and what percentage of each candidate’s base of support could be in play depending on how the race shapes up with time.
As political scientists put it, strategic voters are most interested in deploying their utility to influence the outcome of the election. Those voters will cast a tactical vote when their first choice has little chance of winning and they perceive little effective difference between their first and second choices, but a large difference between their second choice and least-preferred candidate. Those voters will want to maximize their utility by keeping their least-preferred candidate from winning.
One variable in that calculus is the degree of similarity between the strategic voter’s first and second choices. If the dynamic in the race ultimately changes little, Michaud or LePage could gain by appearing to be just similar enough to Cutler in order to appeal to the strategic voters with whom Cutler has cut a deal.