Three-way races are bewildering affairs. They are not just confusing for everyday citizens; political pundits and electoral strategists also struggle with the dynamics of a race such as the present contest for governor in Maine where a Republican, a Democrat and a credible independent candidate face off against one another. It is, after all, easier to describe the play-by-play of a boxing match than it is to make sense of a barroom brawl.
Yet the fundamentals of this three-way race may be simpler than most suppose: A closer look reveals that the race is really a two-way contest, not between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud, who are polling within 1 percentage point of one another (their Real Clear Politics polling averages are 38.4 percent and 39.4 percent, respectively), but between Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler. The two-way race is a contest to carry the anti-LePage banner, and the object of the game in the final weeks will be to claim defections from one another’s supporters.
The larger three-way contest is different from others — including the triangular matchup from 2010 — in no small part because of LePage’s highly visible and controversial persona. LePage has polarized the Maine electorate, strengthening his appeal among his core supporters but shifting centrists and independents decisively against him. LePage’s polling record shows that his support is solid but narrow. The enthusiasm of his core supporters can be counted on to deliver more than 30 percent of the final tally. The governor, however, has rarely polled above 40 percent. With a relatively inflexible “floor” and “ceiling,” the race is likely to turn on the contest over the remaining portion of the Maine electorate.
By all appearances, centrists, independents and liberals will vote for whomever is perceived to have the best chance of defeating LePage. The governor’s race in 2010 featured a similar dynamic. There is, however, a crucial difference: The Democrat in the race today (Michaud) is appreciably more popular than the Democratic nominee from 2010, Libby Mitchell. Michaud, unlike Mitchell, did not face a bruising and divisive primary election. Michaud’s polling average, moreover, is about 10 points higher today than Mitchell’s was in early to mid August.
Michaud’s strength is not just a difference of degree; it may alter the core dynamics of the election. To understand why, one must recall what transpired in the final weeks of the 2010 race. Mitchell’s and Cutler’s poll numbers were near even. Confusion reigned among liberals and centrists on Election Day as anti-LePage voters attempted to guess how other anti-LePage voters would cast their ballots.
Political scientists view this kind of dynamic as a problem of coordination, one that is usually solved by party labels. Party labels serve as a signaling device that enables voters to coordinate their preferences in “normal” two-party elections without a credible independent challenger. Voters hoping to unseat an incumbent Republican know that their best bet is to vote for the Democrat (and vice versa).
Opinion polls can also coordinate voter choices, but only if they convey a clear message. Voters whose first priority is to unseat LePage (and whose secondary priority is loyalty to a candidate) will likely use the polls to decide which candidate stands the best chance of defeating LePage and will consolidate their support behind that candidate. Polls, however, do not always offer a clear signal: Mitchell and Cutler were running neck and neck in 2010, and voter confusion prevailed as anti-LePage voters could not discern which candidate stood the best chance for success.
Yet if, in the final days before the election, one candidate is clearly winning the two-way race to carry the anti-LePage banner (as Michaud presently is, leading Cutler by 30 points in the most recent survey), anti-LePage voters can be expected to rally around that candidate. If Michaud maintains his current lead over Cutler, those Cutler supporters who want to see LePage out of office will likely pull the lever for Michaud. In this scenario, defections from the Cutler camp would produce a decisive victory for Michaud.
Cutler still has time to turn things around; he gained on Libby Mitchell in the final weeks of the 2010 election, though he was closing a much smaller deficit. For LePage’s part, his best hope for victory is a tight race between Michaud and Cutler. LePage, in other words, stands his best chance to win if this boxing match turns into a barroom brawl.
Jeffrey S. Selinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.