October 2, 2012

Marriage warriors study lay of the land

Vote tallies from 2009 may show them where in Maine their strength lies. Or 2012 could surprise them.

By SUSAN M. COVER Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-day series of stories drawing on the results of a statewide poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on the major candidates and issues on the Maine ballot Nov. 6.

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Louis Burnham, 80, a parking enforcement supervisor in Boothbay Harbor, says he’s “from the old school” on the issue of same-sex marriage.

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Vicki Reinecke, 57, says she feels there’s been a change since 2009 in how same-sex marriage is viewed in Boothbay Harbor.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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THE POLL AT A GLANCE

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll was conducted by Critical Insights, a Portland-based opinion research firm.

It follows a similar poll conducted in June and was designed to measure trends in opinions and voter sentiments and track the rise and fall of candidates and campaigns. In both cases, the polls produced more than 100 pages of data tables which the Press Herald analyzed to produce articles, print and online graphics and to guide coverage of the elections.

For the latest poll, Critical Insights called 618 likely voters around the state from Sept. 12 through Sept. 16. It used random landlines and cellphones and conducted live personal interviews. An additional 100 women were polled to provide deeper data on women's perspectives on key issues.

The results were statistically weighted to reflect the demographics of the state's voting population. Results were weighted by gender, age, region of residence and political affiliation.

The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for results based on the entire sample, with larger margins for subgroups such as independent voters or older voters.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

SUNDAY: Key poll results in the election for president, the U.S. Senate, Congress and the same-sex marriage referendum.

TODAY: The same-sex marriage poll results and returns from the 2009 repeal referendum suggest where the battlegrounds lie across Maine.

TUESDAY: Sharp distinctions that reflect “the two Maines” concept emerge from poll results in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR - Louis Burnham was born and raised in this seaside town, and says he's "from the old school" when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Vicki Reinecke was born and raised here, too, and supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Burnham, 80, and Reinecke, 57, show the two sides of the divide over the issue in this town where shipbuilders and lobstermen live among artists, shop owners and tourists.

In 2009, the last time Mainers voted on gay marriage, 565 residents of Boothbay Harbor voted to support it and 563 opposed it.

It was one of the closest margins in the state in the referendum that overturned a law allowing gay marriage. Supporters of gay marriage won only four counties -- Cumberland, Hancock, Knox and York -- and lost 12 others, including Lincoln County, home to Boothbay Harbor.

Mainers will vote on the issue again Nov. 6, when they will decide on a proposal to make it legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

As he leaned against a mailbox last week while working as the town's parking enforcement supervisor, Burnham, a former selectman and grocery store owner, said he expects the vote to be close again in Boothbay Harbor.

"I'm from the old school," he said. "I believe in men and women, husband and wife. I know it's a big issue today."

Reinecke, who works at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, said she senses a change in town. She noticed it last fall, when she spotted a woman at a table gathering signatures on a petition in support of gay marriage.

"I was impressed at how much traffic was going her way," she said, as she shopped at Boothbay Region Greenhouses. "In 2009, there seemed to be more fear perhaps, but I don't sense that now and I don't know what they were afraid of. People are afraid of change."

As both sides of the campaign ramp up for Election Day, just five weeks from Tuesday, the 53-47 percent spread from 2009 continues to inform their strategy.

Matt Hutson, campaign director for Protect Marriage Maine, the lead opponent of gay marriage, has lined the walls of his office with chart after chart showing the vote totals from 2009. He knows where the vote against gay marriage was strong -- 73 percent in Aroostook County and 66 percent in Somerset County -- and where it was not.

Gay marriage was approved with 60 percent support in Cumberland County, where 73 percent of Portland voters backed it.

Carroll Conley of Protect Marriage Maine said gay-marriage opponents are looking at trends in voting patterns not just from 2009, but from the presidential election in 2008 and the governor's race in 2010. They think they can do at least as well, if not better, in places like Penobscot County, where they won with 59 percent support in 2009.

"Those numbers are very much on our minds," he said. "We're very encouraged by what we're seeing in those campaigns."

Conley, who was not involved in the 2009 campaign, said he was surprised to see how close the vote was in York County, where just 145 votes separated "yes" and "no."

Gay-marriage advocates won in York County that year, just barely.

They say there are two big differences between 2009 and this year. This is a presidential election year, while 2009 featured only referendum questions on the statewide ballot, so turnout is expected to be considerably higher than the 58 percent who voted three years ago.

David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, said turnout could go as high as 75 percent.

The second difference is that voters in presidential years tend to be younger and more progressive.

"It gives us what we believe is an advantage in the predictability and nature of the electorate," Farmer said. "We are working everywhere."

Farmer said gay-marriage supporters expect roughly 180,000 more people to vote this time than voted in 2009. Between gathering signatures for the referendum, one-on-one conversations, phone calls and forums, Farmer said, they have seen growing support for gay marriage in Maine.

A poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald and released Sunday shows 57 percent of Maine voters expressing support for gay marriage, 36 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided.

That's unchanged from a similar poll done for the newspaper by Critical Insights in June, but indicates a higher level of support than two other recent polls, which pegged proponents at 53 percent and 52 percent.

A closer look at the poll numbers shows that in the 1st Congressional District, 66 percent support same-sex marriage and 27 percent do not, with the rest undecided. In the more rural 2nd Congressional District, support is 48 percent and opposition stands at 46 percent, according to Critical Insights, the firm that conducted the poll.

Conley said opponents of gay marriage are confident that the polls exaggerate support because people don't like to talk about the issue. Their internal polls show 8 to 10 percent undecided, and they hope to sway that group with television ads set to begin airing early this month.

Ron Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said both sides are likely to see a surge in voters, so the key will be which camp does a better job getting people to the polls.

With an open U.S. Senate seat and a strong performance by President Obama expected, he said, the election is likely to tip in favor of gay-marriage supporters.

"The possibility that the Senate seat could be claimed by someone likely to caucus with Democrats (independent Angus King) and the likelihood of the incumbent Democratic president winning will be a boost to marriage equality supporters," he said.

Maine is one of four states that will vote on gay marriage Nov. 6. Maryland and Washington voters will consider upholding laws passed by their legislatures and signed by their Democratic governors, and Minnesota is considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

For some, the focus of this election should be the economy, not a social issue.

Dawn Gilbert, who owns Heads of the Harbor beauty salon in Boothbay Harbor, has been active in Republican politics for decades. She supports gay rights, but not gay marriage, and is worried about the economy.

"I think there's a lot of split people on this issue," said Gilbert, 69. "To me, it shouldn't be an issue. I'm not for gay marriage. I just think the word marriage shouldn't be in there."

Across town, Tim Lewis, 60, owner of the Mid-Town Motel, said he supports gay marriage. "I don't see anything wrong with it," he said as he stood in the office of the motel his father built in 1955. "It's not my style, but I'm for equal rights." 

Staff Writer Susan Cover can be reached at 621-5643 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

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