I started seeing bumper stickers with a very short message right after the 2010 election: They just said “61%.”

For political junkies, it said a lot. It was the share of the electorate that voted for someone other than Republican Paul LePage, and who, in theory, would get together and remove him from office at the next opportunity. As the governor reeled off a series of outrageous comments and stiff-armed anyone who got in his way, the stickers gave many the reassuring feeling that it was just a matter of time before the LePage era was over.

Now, 48 days before that election, it’s time to put those stickers away. If the polls are right, it looks like we’ve had the math all wrong.

There has been no indication of an overwhelming anti-LePage vote waiting to organize behind a single champion. Instead, what we are seeing is a polarized electorate, nearly evenly split between Gov. LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud.

In just the past few weeks, we’ve seen polls that show us a race that’s split 43-39 for Michaud, according to Rasmussen; 38-37 for LePage, according to CBS News/New York Times; and 43-42 for Michaud, according to Public Policy Polling. All these polls show leads well within the margin of error.

Independent Eliot Cutler has not shown much strength in these polls, with support of 15 percent (Rasmussen), 10 percent (CBS) and 11 percent in the Public Policy poll, which had him at 26 percent in January 2013.

Cutler has said all along that he is not a spoiler, and his decline in the polls supports the point – just not in the way he has wanted to make it. Cutler argues that it’s wrong to assume that all the anti-LePage votes would go to Michaud if Cutler were not in the race. At least according to these polls, he’s right.

As Cutler’s percentage drops, Michaud’s lead isn’t growing. The challenger is staying within a percentage point or two of the governor (usually ahead). This doesn’t look like a majority waiting to assemble itself, as much as an electorate deeply divided about the leadership of Paul LePage and the direction in which he has taken the state.

The dynamics of this race feel very different from the one in 2010 that Cutler almost won. That was the first election after the financial collapse and the passage of Obamacare. It was a bad year for incumbents, a bad year for Democrats and a terrible year for a traditional Democrat like Libby Mitchell, who had a record of 30 years of elective office. Many voters were ready to take a chance on either Cutler or LePage, even though most people had never heard of either one just a few months earlier.

This race looks a lot more like 2006, when an unpopular governor (John Baldacci) was running for re-election against a Republican (Chandler Woodcock) and an independent (Barbara Merrill). Baldacci won with 38 percent, over Woodcock with 30 percent and Merrill with 21 percent. For the rest of his time in office, Baldacci was known as “Gov. 38” on the conservative website As Maine Goes, just as LePage’s critics cling to the notion that he’s not really legitimate because most people don’t like him. But Baldacci won the election.

Unlike an election with an open seat, a race to remove an incumbent is usually a referendum on the incumbent: This year the choice is Paul LePage, yes or no. So far, Michaud has taken hold of the “no” position and hasn’t shown any sign that he will give it up. Cutler could still win, but he needs something to happen that is out of his control: One of his opponents has to gain ground.

Last time he benefited when enough Democratic voters decided that Mitchell could not win and a Gov. Cutler would be better than a Gov. LePage. That could happen this time, too, and so could the opposite. If Republican voters decide that LePage can’t win, they may defect to Cutler as the best alternative to a Democratic governor and Legislature.

But with the two leading candidates neck and neck, neither one can happen.

As we head into the fall, this race is not about the governor’s off-color remarks or loose command of the facts. What we have is a state with serious economic problems that is sharply divided over what role government should play to address them.

There is one issue in this election, and it is Paul LePage. The governor could win if a little more than a third of the voters, somewhere near 40 percent, decide they agree with his approach to poverty, economic development and education. He will lose if a little more than a third of voters reject his approach and the direction he has taken the state.

That’s not the math we’ve been talking about for the past 3½ years, but it looks like the race that we’ve got.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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