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For meaningful Cutler endorsement, King needed to say why Michaud is undeserving

Posted Aug. 19, 2014, at 11:35 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 19, 2014, at 11:51 a.m.

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Eliot Cutler (right), an independent running for governor, stands by as Sen. Angus King endorses him at a press conference on Monday in Bangor.
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Eliot Cutler (right), an independent running for governor, stands by as Sen. Angus King endorses him at a press conference on Monday in Bangor. Buy Photo

Did U.S. Sen. Angus King give fellow independent Eliot Cutler needed momentum with his endorsement as Maine’s 2014 campaign for governor enters its home stretch and Cutler fights his way out of third place?

That’s the hope for Cutler and his campaign.

King is among Maine’s most popular politicians, and he’s remained popular since his 2012 election to the Senate — a six-way race that he won with more than 50 percent of the vote. Key to Cutler’s hopes, King has remained popular among the Maine voters most likely to be choosing a candidate based on who has the best chance of defeating Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Cutler is trailing both Democrat Mike Michaud and LePage in polling, but nearly half of voters in a Portland Press Herald poll in late June said they were undecided on which candidate would receive their vote. In the survey, a higher percentage of women than men and a higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans said they weren’t committed to a candidate.

A key determinant for many of those voters will be who they believe is in the best position to beat LePage, who maintains strong backing from his supporters but has garnered strong opposition from the majority of voters. Voters in the “anybody but LePage camp” are likely to throw their weight behind whichever candidate looks most likely to unseat the governor. Recent polls indicate this is more likely to be Michaud, who has more than twice as much support as Cutler, according to months of polling.

King on Monday made the case for Cutler, saying the independent is best suited to understand a changing economy and best suited to govern by virtue of his lack of party. “By definition, you have to build coalitions,” King said. “I think that’s an important part of getting out of this mess that we’re in.”

But King avoided going a step further and telling voters why they shouldn’t opt for Michaud — a move that would have made his endorsement more effective and addressed a concern that’s top of mind for a majority of the Maine electorate.

A high-profile endorsement, especially from a governor (or a former governor, in this case), can go a long way in a low-information race to which voters aren’t paying much attention. In that case, political science research has found, an endorsement from a popular politician can serve as an “information shortcut,” so voters make up their minds without doing intensive research.

But that kind of race — a low-information affair — doesn’t describe Maine’s three-way gubernatorial race, one of the most competitive in the nation. In this race, many voters — those determined to defeat LePage — will look to the polls to inform their decision on which candidate gets their vote. In order to shift the polling dynamic in Cutler’s favor, anti-LePage voters would need to hear — from King and others — exactly why they should abandon Michaud in favor of Cutler.

Four years ago, King’s endorsement of Cutler was something of a surprise that came during a late Cutler surge. This time around, Cutler can’t count on the surprise element. But King could have added it and made his endorsement more effective with an explanation of why Michaud, his colleague in Maine’s congressional delegation, wasn’t getting his vote.

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