PORTLAND – Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler says the tens of thousands of Mainers who cast their ballots weeks early — rather than waiting until Election Day to vote — may have cost him the election against tea party-backed Republican Paul LePage.

Nobody knows for sure if Cutler would have won if more early voters had waited to cast their ballots, but political observers say the race at least would have been closer.

Many voters who wanted somebody other than LePage cast their early ballots with Democrat Libby Mitchell, who three to four weeks before the election appeared to be their best bet. But many of those early Mitchell voters would have voted for Cutler had they waited and seen that Cutler was surging near the end, said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.

“I’m not sure it would have been enough to close the gap, but I think we can say with almost 100 percent confidence that it would have been tighter,” Brewer said. “Would it have been enough to change the outcome? I’m not sure I’d be willing to go that far, but it could have.”

In the end, Cutler lost by fewer than 10,000 votes.

He finished with nearly 37 percent of the vote, just 1.5 percentage points behind LePage. Mitchell was a distant third with 19 percent.

All told, Maine voters cast more than 140,000 absentee ballots before the election — nearly 53,000 by Democrats, about 48,000 by Republicans, and more than 36,000 by independents, as well as some 3,000 by Green Independents, according to the secretary of state’s office.

No one can say who those votes favored, but Portland offers anecdotal evidence.

Mitchell beat Cutler 2,792 to 1,830 in early votes, but Cutler won the city on Election Day with 45 percent of the vote to Mitchell’s 32 percent, according to election officials.

After conceding the election, Cutler said the Democrats and Republicans use early voting to their advantage.

“I think when you start an election in the very early stages, it deprives people of time to make up their minds or change their minds,” Cutler said. “And secondly, it reinforces the institutional hold that political parties have on our political process.

“I think if there’s anything that’s clear from this year’s experience in Maine, that kind of stranglehold that the political parties have on our political process is something that doesn’t benefit the people of Maine.”

Spokesmen for the state Democratic and Republican parties said Cutler’s gripe sounds like “sour grapes.”

Both parties work hard to get people to vote early, sending out mailers and calling supporters encouraging them to cast absentee ballots. law, absentee ballots have to be made available at least 30 days before Election Day.

While it’s true that party candidates have the backing of parties for early voting campaigns, Cutler’s campaign could have launched an early-voting effort of its own targeting independents — but it chose not to.

“There’s no prohibition on an independent candidate doing it,” said Lance Dutson of the Maine Republican Party.

At the end of the day, Cutler’s surge was simply too little, too late to overcome LePage, said Arden Manning of the Maine Democratic Party. “I don’t think it has to do with absentee ballots,” Manning said. “I think it has to do with the timing his campaign moved.”

The aim of early voting is to increase voter participation. In that sense, most people agree it’s a good thing if it results in more people voting.

Nonetheless, Cutler has a valid point about early voters depriving themselves of time to learn more about the candidates and issues before Election Day, Brewer said.

“I would never want to deprive myself of the opportunity to get more information before I make any decision,” he said. “That would apply to voting or what kind of car I’m going to buy.”