AUGUSTA, Maine — Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Maine as a 2016 presidential candidate will come Friday, at a time when the Democrat is wracked by scrutiny but still in a strong position here and nationwide.
The Democratic frontrunner will speak at an organizing event at Portland’s King Middle School, billed by her campaign in a news release as “part of the campaign’s ongoing effort to build an organization” outside of the early primary states. It’ll follow a fundraising event in Cape Elizabeth.
Clinton has locked up key Democratic endorsements across the country, but she has been dogged by criticism of her email practices as U.S. secretary of state, and her chief rival for her party’s nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is surging behind his appeal to blue-collar Democrats worried about income inequality.
The Portland event is part of a Clinton campaign strategy that could change that negative narrative, said Ronald Schmidt, a University of Southern Maine political science professor.
“It’s not just a Maine affair,” he said. “If it gets covered in the media, it’ll be a story about her meeting with rank-and-file voters and not just political elites.”
But Clinton’s campaign is stronger nationally and in Maine than it was in 2008, when she lost a primary to Barack Obama, who went on to win the presidency.
Maine’s elite Democrats are behind her, and while Sanders may threaten her in the state caucuses and Republicans say she’s vulnerable, she’s still likely to win Maine in a general election.
Unlike in 2008, she’s winning the “endorsement primary” in Maine and nationwide.
Maine’s biggest Democratic names have endorsed Clinton, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, 2nd Congressional District hopeful Emily Cain, House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond.
This means Clinton has won Maine’s “endorsement primary,” a favorite metric of opinion polling website FiveThirtyEight, which says endorsements from other politicians are a top indicator of a healthy campaign.
She has already won it nationally, but she didn’t by the end of her 2008 primary. Maine Democrats were split. Gov. John Baldacci endorsed her. But Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District endorsed John Edwards, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina. House Speaker Glenn Cummings supported Obama.
Pingree didn’t endorse then. Clinton’s early backing from her and others could be seen as a sign of a surer campaign.
“I bet it will be a long time before we have another chance to vote for someone with this much experience and who is this deeply committed to the values that we all share,” Pingree said in a statement.
Still, neither Clinton has fared well in Maine Democratic caucuses, and Sanders and could be a threat this time.
There’s some reason for Clinton to worry in Maine. In the 2008 Democratic caucuses, she only won 40 percent of votes and lost to Obama. Her husband did worse in 1992. Before winning the nomination and carrying Maine in his successful general election, Bill Clinton finished behind Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas in the Maine caucuses.
Enter Sanders, who is doing well in New Hampshire, where a Tuesday poll from Monmouth University found him 7 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. A YouGov/CBS poll on Sunday said Sanders also was ahead in Iowa, site of the first caucuses.
Like Maine and Vermont, those are heavily white states with liberal Democratic primary voters, and Schmidt said Sanders has a “particular profile that plays well to Maine progressives.”
“He is honest and has had the same views for over 30 years,” said Troy Jackson, a Democratic national committeeman and former state senator who introduced Sanders at a Portland rally in July. “It is refreshing to have a candidate that doesn’t look at polls to craft his message. He tells you how he feels on issues and doesn’t lie to you.”
Schmidt called Clinton the favorite in the Maine caucuses, and he said even if Sanders wins New Hampshire, Iowa and Maine, she’d still be the favorite for the nomination. Still, he called a Sanders win “a possibility” that Clinton should avoid, because it could give him momentum and sap energy from her Maine supporters later on.
“It’s not going to matter in the narrative of a Bernie Sanders presidency, but it very well could matter in the narrative of a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency,” he said.
But Clinton would be favored in Maine’s general election.
Since 1992, the state has voted Democratic in all presidential races, and there are still 44,000 more Democrats in Maine than Republicans.
But Maine is one of two states that do not allocate all their Electoral College votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes. It is possible for a candidate who does not win the popular vote to capture one of the state’s four Electoral College votes if he or she garners the majority of votes in one of the state’s two congressional districts, though it has never happened.
The more conservative 2nd District, which elected Republican Bruce Poliquin last year after two decades of Democratic control, could be in play. In 2012, Obama won just 52 percent of votes there, below his statewide mark of 56 percent.
Schmidt said Clinton’s the statewide favorite and said splitting the delegates is not “particularly likely, but it could happen.”
But Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said it’s “a likelihood” that his party can win the 2nd District and “a strong possibility” that Clinton could lose Maine.
He said the email scandal has sent her “plummeting as far as her general election prospects go.”
“The voters are very clear in their response to these revelations: They don’t trust her to be president of the United States,” he said.
But even though her favorability is low, it’s too early to discuss her demise: Nationally, she’s slightly ahead of the Republican field in recent polls aggregated by RealClearPolitics and remains a strong candidate.
“We need someone capable of building coalitions and commanding respect from both sides of the proverbial aisle,” said state Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, a Clinton supporter. “Secretary Clinton is the only candidate in the race with such a track record.”