With the result of the Democratic primary for governor finally being tabulated more than a week after Election Day, we’ve learned a couple of things about the ranked-choice voting process after watching it play out over the past few days.

For one, we discovered that it didn’t really end up changing the results. On the Republican side, it never came into play, and for Democrats, the candidate who had the most first-place votes on election night still ended up winning. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, since it’s exactly what’s happened with the two mayoral elections held in Portland using the system.

It also didn’t end up producing some enormous upset. In every major contested primary, the candidate pegged as the front-runner won, whether it was Shawn Moody winning easily in the first round or Janet Mills needing four rounds to declare victory. There were fewer upsets in 2018 than there were in 2010, when many observers were astounded to see Paul LePage cruise to victory over a large field.

There also didn’t seem to be much evidence that ranked-choice voting had a big impact on tactics or strategy.

There was still plenty of negative campaigning on both sides, which ranked-choice supporters had promised would be reduced. While we saw a unique strategy of two candidates, Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves, attempting to band together, it didn’t work very well, as neither of them was able to even snag second place in the end.

This is all because, even though voters always claim to hate negative campaigning, it proves effective time and time again – if it weren’t, campaigns wouldn’t keep using it. Candidates are rarely punished for it, even when the attacks are ridiculous and over the top, like during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Sadly, ranked-choice voting doesn’t seem to help with that at all.


What, exactly, did it accomplish, other than forcing us to wait a week to find out the results? Well, for one, it showed just how many Democrats weren’t exactly huge fans of Mills, and where her eventual majority came from. Though she led in every round as candidates were eliminated, the margin that put her over the top came from the supporters of Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet, who slightly favored her over Adam Cote. However, it also appears based on the results that about 10 percent of Democrats left both Mills and Cote off their ballot by not ranking them at all, reflecting a dissatisfaction with both leading candidates.

That could prove an ill omen for Democrats in the fall, as we now enter a race with a conservative businessman, an establishment Democratic candidate and two left-of center independents on the ballot. If that dynamic sounds familiar, that’s because it’s remarkably similar to 2010, when Paul LePage faced Eliot Cutler and Libby Mitchell in the general election. LePage was able to successfully portray Mitchell as the standard-issue establishment Democrat who’d spent her Mills as their nominee, Democrats chose a candidate who could face the same pitfalls as Mitchell. Like Mitchell, she’s served in the Legislature, has plenty of experience in Augusta and has even run for higher office before and lost.

All of that means that Moody has the chance to cast the race in terms of a political outsider versus an Augusta insider – even though his party has controlled the Blaine House for eight years.

In some ways, he faces much the same challenge that John McCain did when he ran for president in 2008 after eight years of George W. Bush. Voters were ready for a change, and national Democrats were smart enough to choose a candidate ready for the moment in Barack Obama. It’s always difficult when your party’s been in power for eight years, as you end up having to campaign on the previous administration’s record – even if you weren’t a part of it or were often critical of it, like McCain was.

Moody facing off against Mills rather than a fellow outsider makes that much easier for him. He can portray himself as a change for voters weary of the governor’s confrontational style, while simultaneously promising to carry on the substance of his policies. Mills has said she’ll run a positive campaign, but it’s hard to see how she’ll avoid going negative against Moody.

After all, she won the primary by attacking not only LePage, but fellow Democrats as well; there’s no reason for her to change strategies now.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel

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