Most times Maine elects a new governor, the winner emerges early in the counting.
That didn’t happen Tuesday.
The early results, from cities and large towns that have automated ballot counters, gave independent Eliot Cutler the lead.
But the late results, from small towns that hand-count the ballots, slowly and steadily lifted Republican Paul LePage into the lead.
In the end, rural Maine chose the state’s next governor.
“With the exception of sort of the area right around Portland, LePage got virtually every town with a population under 1,000,” said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College. “More than any election that I can recall in Maine, it was a rural-urban split.”
The demographic divide appears to reflect the national wave of frustration with government spending, a feeling that is strongest in rural areas that have been hit hardest by the recession, observers said.
Political scientists also pointed to other factors that turned the long race into a narrow LePage victory: the collapse of Democrat Libby Mitchell’s campaign, negative advertising that may have backfired, and the fact that Cutler’s surge came after tens of thousands of Maine voters had cast their ballots.
The rural-urban split is not entirely new to Maine. But it has been less of a factor in Maine than in many other states.
“We normally have not had a real sharp division in most of our elections along those lines,” said Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Maine. That is why the candidate who gets the early lead on election night usually keeps it, he said.
Cutler won big in Cumberland County, with 41 percent to LePage’s 30 percent. That kept the independent in the lead for most of the evening, until LePage inched ahead near midnight as the smaller towns started reporting hand-counted ballots.
Cutler also won the coastal counties of Sagadahoc, Waldo and Knox.
LePage won coastal Lincoln and Washington counties. But his strongest showing was in the rural interior of the state, including Androscoggin, Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.
The split was clearly not north-south.
Cutler won Bangor and Brewer, for example, but LePage’s lead in the surrounding small towns gave him Penobscot County.
And while Cutler won Biddeford and Saco, LePage won York County by carrying the small towns near Maine’s southern border.
Cutler’s loss of York County had a lot to do with Mitchell’s success there. Mitchell got 24 percent of the vote in York County, more than in any other county.
The rural-urban split can be explained in part by the candidates, said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.
“Rural voters looking at Eliot Cutler were probably unlikely to see one of them,” Brewer said.
Ads focusing on Cutler’s experience as a lawyer, his wealth and his connections to China likely made him less appealing to rural voters, Brewer said.
Although LePage has been a small-city mayor, his background and style were more likely to appeal to rural voters, Brewer said. “They can look at him and say, ‘He could be one of us.”‘
The rural economy may have been an even bigger factor in the split.
“Economic downturns are always felt more in small towns,” said Michael Franz, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College.
And anti-government sentiment and enthusiasm for the tea party movement are stronger in hard-hit rural areas, Brewer said.
The Maine counties with the highest poverty rates and reliance on benefits programs, including welfare, all went for LePage, who has promised to create jobs and set tighter limits on public assistance.
LePage’s base of support included all seven Maine counties where more than 50 percent of schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches: Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis, Somerset, Waldo and Washington.
There also were key factors within the campaigns that set the stage for LePage’s win, political scientists said.
The collapse of the Mitchell campaign, for example, opened the door to Cutler’s last-minute surge, Palmer said. “Somehow, the campaign never really took hold or came together.”
Mitchell went up against a national anti-incumbent wave, as well as Maine history, he said.
“Maine hasn’t had two successive governors from the same party since the 1950s,” Palmer said. “Maine swings back and forth.”
Maisel said Mitchell’s decline became evident in the late stages of the race, in part because the campaign didn’t have signs out, Maisel said. “When there were more (Shawn) Moody signs around than Mitchell signs, people thought, ‘Are they giving up?”‘
It’s unclear how the negative advertising affected the race, the political scientists said.
The ads might have backfired on Mitchell and helped Cutler, who was the target of some of the most controversial mailings but did not respond in kind.
“I actually think the negative mailings from the Democratic Party may have contributed in part to Cutler’s surge,” Franz said. “The timing is conspicuous.”
Maisel said the Democratic ads probably hurt Cutler more than they helped him. But instead of boosting Mitchell, they may ultimately have helped elect LePage, he said.
“The Democratic ads in the last four or five days against Cutler may well have been decisive,” Maisel said. “(They) took people away from Cutler and gave them to LePage.”
Finally, Cutler’s surge may simply have been too late in this new era of early voting.
When Jim Longley came from behind in the polls to win the governor’s race in 1974, virtually all voters cast their ballots on Election Day.
This year, about 30 percent of the votes were cast days or weeks before Election Day, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
Some voters who cast early ballots for Mitchell would likely have changed to Cutler once it looked like he had the better chance to win, although no one can be sure if it would have been enough to change the outcome.
“He really didn’t catch fire until the very end,” Franz said. “How many of those early Mitchell voters would have made the same decision if they voted on Election Day?”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: