March 23, 2019
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What the caucuses reveal about Maine politics in 2016

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Bernie Sanders supporter Jay Taplin counts votes at Sunday's Democratic presidential caucus at Ellsworth High School.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fleeting presidential spotlight is off Maine after the state’s weekend Republican and Democratic caucuses, but left behind are plenty of lessons about our politics.

Maine went for underdogs: Republican Ted Cruz won most of Maine’s delegates in a surprising Saturday finish over front-runner Donald Trump, and Democratic insurgent Bernie Sanders beat party favorite Hillary Clinton in a Sunday landslide.

Cruz’s win is likely attributable to a small, conservative pool of caucus-goers suspicious of Trump, and Sanders’ name could be next on a list of Democratic also-rans who took Maine and lost the nomination. The parties touted record turnout, but legislators are still eyeing a move to primaries, which would increase that significantly.

Here’s what we learned over the weekend:

Maine was Cruz country — but that might have been a symptom of the state’s caucus rules and mistrust of Trump among conservatives.

The ultraconservative Texas senator’s win in the Maine primary was difficult to predict. There was little polling in Maine, but Trump’s previous wins in all other New England states led us to believe he was probably the favorite here.

Nevertheless, Sagadahoc County Republican Committee Chairwoman Cindy Nesbit said she thought turnout was because of “the Trump effect” and “people either that hate Trump or love Trump” were at the county caucus in Bowdoin. With Cruz winning in 14 of Maine’s 16 counties, the former seemed to prevail.

Given that, two key factors could explain Cruz’s win: Maine’s closed caucus system and grass-roots mistrust of Trump.

Maine’s caucus system limits voting to registered Republicans, and only 7 percent of them caucused on Saturday. Caucuses turn out far fewer voters than primaries and are less representative of the electorate as a whole, which gave highly informed conservatives and evangelicals an outsized role in the Maine caucuses.

Cruz, who is staunchly anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage, is a better fit for many of these voters than Trump, who supported reproductive rights before reversing course in advance of announcing his quest for the Republican nomination. The Christian Civic League of Maine, the state’s top Christian conservative group, didn’t organize for any candidate, but it signed on to a letter to Trump pressing him for specific policy views.

That may not have moved the needle for many voters, but it could be reflective of concerns about Trump, who had an arguably less-than-presidential appearance in Maine last week that amounted to a diatribe against 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The Rev. Lester Dow, a Richmond pastor who supported Cruz, said Trump “makes these great promises and sounds very conservative,” but “he wasn’t just a few years ago, so you wonder what that says for the future.”

In picking Sanders, Democrats’ anti-establishment streak was again on display.

There were relatively few solid indicators heading into the weekend caucuses about what the results would be on the Democratic side, other than Sanders’ regional strength and a history of Mainers backing anti-establishment candidates who nationally are second-stringers.

Sanders was always a good bet to win Maine — he’s from Vermont, won neighboring New Hampshire and was well-organized here, winning lots of endorsements from legislators and party activists.

Also, Mainers proved a willingness to back candidates other than national front-runners as recently as 2008, when they chose then-upstart Barack Obama over Clinton, but the trend goes deeper. State Democrats backed Gary Hart in 1984 (Walter Mondale later secured the nomination), nearly went for Jesse Jackson in 1988 (Michael Dukakis won the nomination) and put Bill Clinton in fourth place in 1992.

This year, Sanders’ populist appeal and fundraising prowess, which has kept him more or less in the running despite Clinton’s growing lead in the delegate count, clearly energized the base. That and the prospect of Republicans nominating firebrands such as Trump or Cruz led many Democrats — especially younger ones — to the polls, where they demonstrated their allegiance to Sanders’ populist message.

Both parties touted record-breaking caucus turnout, but it’d be bigger in a primary, which Maine legislative leaders are already calling for despite a hefty price tag.

Maine Democrats and Republicans cheered record turnout this weekend, with about 48,000 Democrats and about 19,000 Republicans caucusing across the state.

Heavy attendance was expected, particularly on the Democratic side — where more than 12,000 absentee ballot requests were touted — but nothing like what materialized. This led to long waits at caucus locations, particularly in Portland, where lines stretched for blocks.

That’s great news for the party, but Democratic leaders recognized the party’s organizational shortcomings on Sunday, even as caucus votes were still being cast.

That day, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he’ll present a bill to move Maine to a primary election system. On Monday, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said that they’re open to the idea.

It would certainly boost participation: Maine had presidential primaries in 1996 and 2000, and in the latter year, 161,000 people voted — or 2.5 times more than the 2016 weekend total. While they bested Republicans, only about 15 percent of Maine Democrats caucused on Sunday.

But primaries went away in Maine and other states by 2004 because of cost. Now, the parties fund their own caucuses with no cost to the state. Former Senate President Kevin Raye, a Republican, proposed instituting a primary that was estimated to cost $1 million in 2012.

It didn’t go anywhere, even after the Republican Party’s chaotic caucus process that year that ended with some of Maine’s national delegates for Ron Paul being locked out of the Republican National Convention. So, this debate will be between cost and effect.

 



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