It’s time for a little inside baseball in the world of politics. Spring training for the next gubernatorial election is under way, and hard-core fans are already trickling in. While the general public won’t be buying tickets until next year, the equipment handlers and coaches, the veterans and the over-awed minor league players are already suited up and giving interviews.
Grab a hot dog and a few cold ones. Like it or not, the next election is upon us and it will be a referendum on LePage. Can he pull off another surprising victory with less than 40 percent support? Will his opponents spend their time demonizing each other, giving him another free pass? Can he outrun his own gaffes?
The latest conventional wisdom, being promoted by both parties and based on a few uselessly early polls, is that LePage will win with rock-solid 40 percent support, as independent Eliot Cutler and the as-yet-unnamed Democrat split the remaining 60 percent.
LePage likes that narrative because it gives his dispirited supporters a rush of cotton-candy hopefulness. Democrats hope it will discourage people from jumping onto the Cutler bandwagon while they figure out who will run.
All that has made tea party Republicans giddy and given anti-LePage folks some unsettling nightmares starring the ghosts of campaigns past.
It’s all, as Colonel Potter of “M*A*S*H” fame would say, “horse hockey.”
I’ll go out on a limb with some unconventional wisdom. LePage has only the slimmest chance of winning re-election in 2014. Here’s why: To win, he needs four things to happen, three of which he has no control over.
• First, Democrats will need to put forward a strong enough candidate to ensure that Cutler does not become the de facto Democratic choice. If moderate Democrats bolt to an independent, as they did in 2010 and in 2012, when Angus King ran for Senate, the game is finished.
• Second, both a strong Democrat and Cutler will need to run credible enough campaigns so they each get at least 25 percent of the vote but no more than 35 percent or so.
• Third, the 60 percent of voters who want LePage sent back to the minors will have to follow their script perfectly by getting so enthralled with one of the alternatives that they refuse to rally behind another, late in the campaign, because it isn’t their first choice.
• Finally, LePage will have to get through the campaign without any of his trademark bloopers that animate the late-night talk shows. In 2010, his handlers pulled him out of virtually all of the last weeks of campaigning, fearing a major blunder or a meltdown. Good luck trying that with a sitting governor.
LePage needs all four of those things in order to win. As they say at the Oxford Casino, that’s a wicked long shot.
Here’s another problem for LePage. His solid 40 percent support doesn’t exist.
LePage has core support among tea party types because he has that angry edge they like. The rest of his support, which includes ordinary Mainers and small-business people who simply want change in Augusta, is much softer.
For now, LePage is all they’ve got. But given a capable alternative who supports reforming government and has a plan for the economy that goes beyond more public spending, they make the shift.
The key factor in the 2014 race will be intensity, both for and against LePage. In 2010, he had strong support from an energized tea party. What he didn’t have was intense and widespread opposition to his election. In previous three-way races where a majority of Maine voters feel strongly against someone, they’ve proved to be remarkably strategic.
The 1994 race for governor is a case in point. That race pitted former Gov. Joe Brennan against Angus King and Susan Collins. Brennan’s position was eerily similar to LePage’s today. He had support in his party but couldn’t crack 40 percent in broader polling.
The race was reasonably close for a long time, while the anti-Brennan majority took a long look at Collins and King. And then, in what is becoming an unofficial “fall primary,” they began to shift toward King. Polling picked it up, media coverage accelerated it and the Collins campaign collapsed.
Look for a similar pattern in 2014. Anti-LePage voters aren’t going to conveniently split their votes between Cutler and the Democrat. They’ll give them both a good hard look. They won’t get hopelessly locked into one candidate or vote too early. In October, they’ll begin to shift toward one and the other will quickly fade.
By Election Day, we’ll effectively have a two-person race. And LePage will be in big trouble.
Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group, and is co-writing “Growing Maine’s
Next Economy,” which will be out next fall. He can be reached at: