Maine Democrats ran the candidate they wanted for governor last week. They raised the money they needed to outspend a well-financed incumbent. They put relentless pressure on a third-party candidate’s supporters to prevent a split vote. They got the highest voter turnout in the country.

Then they lost.

A four-year plan to unseat Gov. LePage came unraveled in one day after everything seemed to be going right, leaving Democrats frantically looking for a reason why.

Let’s get a few of the easy ones out of the way: This wasn’t about bears. Contrary to what you might think, there are relatively few hunters in Maine, and not all of them hunt bear. People had strong feelings on the issue, but rural backlash doesn’t explain the governor’s strong showing in suburban York and Cumberland counties.

And it wasn’t because of Eliot Cutler. By the end of the race most of his progressive-minded supporters had already abandoned him and gone over to Democrat Mike Michaud. It’s probably true that Michaud would have run a different race without Cutler around – he might have rolled out his economic plan outside a closed mill instead of inside a natural food store – but three-way races are the norm here. Remember, Democrat John Baldacci beat his Republican opponent in 2006 with two independents in the race combining for more than 30 percent of the vote. Cutler certainly had an impact, but you can’t call him a spoiler.

And of course there’s the candidate. Mike Michaud will be second-guessed for his robotic recitation of talking points and his refusal to hit back when his character and intelligence were attacked by his opponents. Had things broken differently, though, we would be talking about his incredible discipline and ability to take a punch today. The Democrats got the candidate they wanted and put themselves in the position to win, but they didn’t.

Why not? I think this campaign was doomed by the notion of “61 percent” – the anti-LePage majority that would assemble itself around the most likely champion who could beat the governor. Too many people – and I include myself – overestimated how many people really opposed the governor’s policies and not just his bullying manner. I believed those two were the same thing, but I’ve since come to realize that they are not. People will overlook some rough edges if they like what’s underneath.

All year, it looked as though LePage had 40 percent of the state that was sticking with him no matter what, and there was no point even talking to them. The other two candidates were splitting the remaining 60 percent, and if one of them could win that battle decisively, he would be the next governor.

It was almost as if LePage wasn’t even in the same race, except as a bogeyman to get the other candidates’ supporters to pay attention.

There is a whole science to campaigns that gets more precise every election cycle. Every year operatives know more about how we think and make choices. There are huge reservoirs of data and computer models to tell campaigns who should get a push to show up at the polls. But it’s a mistake to think it’s all science.

People don’t vote unless they are moved. LePage showed people he was angry about wasteful, inefficient government. He showed them that he shared their fears about people taking advantage of the system. And he showed them that he was ready to take on anybody who got in his way.

It’s not true, as some have been saying, that Michaud had no positive message. He promised to expand MaineCare with federal funds, taking care of 70,000 people who don’t have health insurance. He promised to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage. Both are hugely popular policies that were big applause lines at this speeches. Cutler also had creative policy ideas that people liked. But neither candidate moved people. LePage did, and he not only kept his base but also shaved off a slice of the solid 61.

Why was LePage, a former CEO with an MBA who has worked his entire career in management, better able to win the confidence of working people than a 29-year veteran of a paper mill like Michaud? Why does the party that created Social Security and Medicare have trouble appealing to the people whose very lives depend on those programs? How do Democrats learn to speak to voters’ sense of outrage and alarm instead of just their intellect?

These aren’t easy questions, but they are the ones Democrats are going to have to answer before they can plan the next election.


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