“You owe everybody in Maine an apology,” said a political activist, a person who’d be fired from his or her job in about 10 seconds if her or his boss found out he or she was talking to me about what her or his boss is actually up to, which is something naughty I might get around to telling you about someday, but not today because this column is about the activist saying how I owe everybody an apology.

“Probably, I do,” I said. “Do you think a general statement of self-reproach, regret and repentance would be sufficient? Or am I going to have to make specific amends for every affront I’ve ever committed?”

“Let’s start with a column you wrote last year saying Maine’s caucuses wouldn’t be important in the presidential campaign,” the activist said. “But look at all the attention Maine got. You were wrong, big time, and you should admit it in print.”

“You’re right,” I said. “We really helped Mitt Romney. He wins the Republican caucuses in Maine with landslide numbers, and three days later, he’s out of the race. John McCain gets creamed here, and in less than a week, he’s the nominee-in-waiting. And Ron Paul – we practically made him a household name (‘Oh, congressman, we love your wife’s fishsticks’). We haven’t had such a major impact on presidential politics since 1936.”

“What happened in 1936?”

“Maine supported Alf Landon, the GOP candidate. So did Vermont. Every other state voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

“Well, maybe we don’t do so well with Republicans,” said the activist, “but the Democratic candidates took us seriously.”

“That’s right,” I said. “They knew this was the kind of state that could turn a race that was too close to call into … a race that was too close to call.

“If you look at this state’s history,” I added, “we’ve generally voted for the hot candidate of the moment, like Barack Obama, or we’ve gone completely off the rails and supported guys with no shot at the nomination, like in 1992, when the Dems gave Jerry Brown a narrow win over Paul Tsongas. Some guy named Clinton that nobody had ever heard of came in third.

“The last time Maine had a chance to be a bellwether state was 1980, when the country was sick of having Jimmy Carter as president. But Maine voters weren’t quite sick enough of the peanut farmer to dump him and nominate Ted Kennedy. Which, admittedly, would have required an illness of life-threatening proportions.

“Oh, and that was also the election cycle in which Howard Baker was supposed to grab front-runner status by winning a Republican straw poll in Maine, thanks to the endorsement of then-U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen. Except the local GOP liked summer resident George Bush better. That’s the first George Bush, not the guy we have now, whom we’ve never liked. Bush ended up being the veep for some guy named Reagan, who didn’t come close to finishing in the money in Maine, but did pretty well lots of other places. Sort of like Roosevelt.”

“So, you’re saying there’s no point in Maine trying to influence the presidential nominating process,” said the activist, who was still hanging in there after several paragraphs of me blathering on. “We just let somebody else make those decisions for us.”

“Actually, that’s what we’re doing now,” I said. “Most Maine voters ignore the caucuses with the same determination usually reserved for ignoring the governor’s weekly radio address. If we really wanted a system that allows broad participation, we’d go back to having primaries.”

“We used to do that?”

“Maine Democrats held presidential primaries for a couple of election cycles. It was a big success if you measure it by how many people got involved. In 1996, the primary drew over 90,000 people to the polls. In 2000, the number jumped to more than 160,000. Compare that to the ‘record’ turnout at this year’s Dem caucuses of around 46,000. Or the big GOP showing of under 5,000. “

“So, why did the Democrats dump the primary?”

“It was too successful. Voters were making all the important decisions at the ballot box and ignoring party leaders and the state convention, both of which are fairly meaningless in a primary system. In 2002, the backroom boys engineered a rule change to restore the caucuses – and their authority.”

The activist – who, I suspect, was a figment of my imagination, which, if true, will certainly make any political bosses with naughty secrets a lot less nervous – had a question: “Don’t you need a profound thought to wrap up this column?”

“Yes,” I said, “I do. And here it is.”

Audio daydream

Astute political observations can emerge from unlikely sources, particularly if those sources have been drinking. Here’s one from a guy I met in a Portland bar:

“Caucus is a word that sounds a lot dirtier than it really is.”

He seemed kind of disappointed.

Have a few brewskis, and e-mail your profundities to me at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.