Strategic voting, Republican ads for the independent candidate, last minute allegiance and endorsement swaps followed by a week of uncertainty about his status – “is he in or is he out?” – oracular advice to “vote your conscience” and a mad, gut wrenching, scramble into the voting booths. Whatever the outcome, the losers will undoubtedly blame the electorate. The post-election dreams of “what if …” in 2010 have become 2014’s nightmares of “Oh no!” Maine voters simply haven’t followed the script campaign screen writers assigned to them.

As a result, Maine’s 2010 and 2014 elections for governor will become a textbook model for game theory analysis for years to come. If victory goes to the competitor who most accurately predicted his opponents’ strategies, then Eliot Cutler is the clear loser. Relying on good ideas, a Democratic base with fragile loyalties and broad discontent with Republican partisanship came within a whisker of victory in 2010, but clearly has had the wrong strategy this time around. An encore of 2010’s performance is not what Maine voters want in 2014. And this fact reflects not a moral failing on the part of the electorate, not a rejected call from a dark night of the soul, but a strategic failure on the part of the candidate. Maine voters want evidence of a different type of leader this cycle.

Conversely, Gov. Paul LePage has run a strategically brilliant campaign. The tough-talking, tea party extremist has been transformed into a jovial, family man and Main Street Republican. Blanketing the airwaves with Ken Burns-like photo and video montages of his smiling face exchanging pleasantries with all manner of citizens at sun-drenched county fairs and wind-swept small harbors and his selective appearance at debates (turning attention from issues and answers to attendance) coupled with endorsements from virtually all of the state and many from the national Republican establishment has been a model of the “keep your base and reach to the center” strategy. If Eliot Cutler flunked the strategy test, Paul LePage has passed with flying colors.

The question then becomes what to make of the Mike Michaud strategy. Clearly, he has met goal No. 1. He has held his base. He has withstood a widespread defection by those – Democrat, independent and even Republican – who fall into the “anybody but LePage” camp. Indeed the central strategic element of the 2014 campaign, the hard truth that makes conventional wisdom such a faulty base for strategic planning, is that “anybody but LePage” has disappeared as the deciding issue. By all accounts, the race is extremely tight. The choice is between a Republican and a Democratic governor.

Here the Michaud campaign is strategically somewhere between failure and brilliant, a workmanlike C+ or B-. It has emphasized his Maine and Democratic roots, his willingness to work across the aisle and his homespun, hardworking attitudes. But it hasn’t adequately highlighted his personal charm and leadership capabilities. If voters have only made-for-TV, postcard-like videos to choose between, the race will continue to be a toss-up, and post-election analysts will look back at a strategic resource squandered.

And underlying all three campaigns is the singular most distinguishing feature of this election – the continuous, externally funded flow of septic sludge from our TV screens into our living rooms, a noxious brew that can sway only the most marginally involved voter while leaving the vast majority to reach for the remote while choking back the urge to retch.

The central question remains, “Which candidate leading which team do we want to lead Maine into the critically precarious future we face?” This is a future whose outlines we have largely ignored through this strategic “game” we’ve played for four years, but whose reality bears down on us with the same intensity as all those film noir TV ads we’ve come to despise so much. Which strategy will have proved successful? We’ll find out Wednesday morning.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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