Whatever happens in November, Maine needs to update our elections for governor. The system we have was designed for two major candidates, even though most gubernatorial races now have at least three. When it comes to elections, we’re listening to a transistor radio but living in a digital world, and it’s killing us.
There are at least two ways to fix this problem. One is an instant runoff system, like Portland’s. The other is an open primary that whittles the candidates down to two in September, before a November finale.
Either would force candidates to appeal to a majority of voters rather than an energized minority. That, in turn, would make Augusta more productive and improve the state’s economic prospects. Without that, we’re stuck with another three-way race where anyone can win with a minority of votes cast.
Two-way races are as easy to figure out as a seesaw: One goes up, and the other goes down. Not so in three-way races. When voters abandon a candidate in a three-way, they usually shift to the third-place candidate to block the second. Here’s how that’s worked three times already, in Maine.
Democrat George Mitchell was leading in the final days of 1974, just as Joe Brennan was in 1994. In both races, once Republicans figured out that their candidate couldn’t win, they bolted to the independent to block the Democrat, giving us both Gov. James Longley and Gov. Angus King.
Democrats tried to do the same thing in 2010, when it became clear their candidate couldn’t win and they shifted to Eliot Cutler. In that case, Democrats weren’t quite as nimble as Republicans had been, and Cutler lost by a slim margin.
I suppose all that complexity accounts for why campaigns spend so much energy trying to get people to drop out of races, even though it hardly ever works. No candidate who thinks he can win pulls out of a race before it begins. And like most elections, this one won’t really start until Labor Day.
Who’s going to win this fall? So far, the trusty crystal ball is just teasing me with these alternating scenarios:
PAUL LePAGE WINS
LePage has an uphill battle in this race, given his high negatives. To win, he needs all of these things to happen:
1. He holds on to not only his conservative base but also the many uneasy moderates who see him as the only real alternative for cleaning up government.
2. When faced with the certainty that they cannot win, in mid-October, neither Mike Michaud nor Cutler withdraws, offering unconvincing arguments about staying in “for the good of the party” or because they have a “duty to their supporters.”
3. The 60 percent of voters who oppose LePage can’t rally behind one alternative and split the opposition vote.
MIKE MICHAUD WINS
This race, for now at least, is probably Michaud’s to lose. But he needs LePage to remain a viable threat, which keeps his base animated. To win, he needs some or all of these things to happen:
1. He remains the leading alternative to LePage.
2. He projects a strong message about economic growth that is not all about growing government.
3. He is seen as a reformer of government rather than another defender of the status quo.
4. Eliot Cutler can’t get any traction and, facing the prospect of his support eroding, withdraws from the race in late October.
ELIOT CUTLER WINS
Cutler is the least known of the candidates, since he currently holds no office and has run only once before. That allows him to re-introduce himself to voters, both through campaigning and advertising. Together, they will raise his name recognition, and perhaps his polling numbers, giving his campaign a sense of momentum in the final weeks.
To win, he needs:
1. Polling numbers that climb between now and the fall, making this a true three-way race.
2. A compelling message about the economy and reforming government in which he comes across as the only one who can do both.
3. Debates in which he looks like a take-charge guy with a plan.
4. A wave of support in the final days from moderate Republicans and independents who abandon a floundering LePage to block Michaud.
Of course, all bets are off if one of them stumbles or is caught shoplifting between now and the fall. That would reset everything and have me scurrying back to the crystal ball.
Welcome to the wacky world of three-way campaigns.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and the co-author of an upcoming book called “Maine’s Next Economy.” He can be contacted at: [email protected]