Former President Donald Trump steps off his plane as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Thursday on his way to surrendering on charges he illegally schemed to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.  Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Even though former President Donald Trump faces four criminal indictments and the possibility of prison time, most Republican voters in Maine believe he is innocent and could wind up supporting him as the party’s 2024 nominee.

But that outcome is far from certain, in part because of changes to the state’s nomination process. Unenrolled voters, who have historically been the largest voting bloc in the state, will be able to cast ballots in either presidential primary without having to first register in a political party. And most of them think Trump is guilty.

Maine’s new semi-open primary rules, together with the use of ranked-choice voting, is injecting new uncertainty into the process, which already is unprecedented because of Trump’s mounting legal challenges.

“Certainly, eight years ago Trump would have been the kind of candidate who would have benefited from this,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine, Farmington. “He was an outsider at the time. He was a challenge to the Republican mainstream.

“But to a large extent, Trump is the Republican mainstream now,” Melcher continued. “So it’s not as clearly helpful to him as it would have been before he was president. If anything, it might work a little bit against him.”

Trump surrendered and was booked Thursday at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on charges that he led a conspiracy to overturn 2020 election results in Georgia. He was charged along with 18 allies. He was released on $200,000 bond and headed back to the airport for his return flight to New Jersey.


It was his fourth indictment in recent months. He also has been charged for trying to interfere with the counting of electoral votes and his role in the subsequent riot in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021; his alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Florida estate after leaving office; and paying for the silence of an adult movie star with whom he allegedly had an affair.

The indictments appear to have solidified his support among the Republican base, with polls showing him leading by double digits over eight other candidates seeking the 2024 nomination, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who refused pressure from Trump to help overturn the 2020 election.

A poll of Maine voters released Thursday by the University of New Hampshire showed that Maine is no different.

“I don’t think the indictments will have much impact on his core supporters,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the UNH Survey Center, which conducts routine polling in Maine. “It will likely strengthen the support of many of them.”

Trump cited his large polling advantage to justify not participating in the first Republican debate, which was held Wednesday night in Wisconsin.

Trump won one of Maine’s four electoral votes in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.



But the nomination process here has changed since 2016, when Trump placed second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican party caucuses.

Last year, lawmakers passed a law that ended the tradition of choosing nominees based on votes cast at local meetings of party activists, or caucuses.

The new law calls for statewide balloting and allows unenrolled voters to vote in a party’s presidential primary. That change is expected to loosen the grip party activists have on the nominating process and create more uncertainty in the outcome.

“You’re going to have a wider more diverse range of people jumping into the process,” Melcher said.

Nominations have been traditionally been tightly controlled by leaders in each party. The party faithful would gather at local caucuses and spend hours debating and choosing a candidate.


But a series of debacles, including libertarians seeking to nominate Ron Paul during the 2012 Republican caucus and the long lines caused by supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic caucuses in Portland, prompted a switch to primaries in 2020.

Under the rules for the caucuses and the 2020 primaries, people not enrolled in a party could participate, but only if they registered as a member of one of the parties. But when Maine’s next presidential primary elections take place March 5, independents will be able to participate in either primary without enrolling – a move that is expected to boost participation.

While independent voters will be allowed to vote in one party primary without enrolling, a record about which primary they voted in will be available to the political parties and candidates.

“The new semi-open primary law should make it easier for unenrolled voters to participate in Maine’s primary elections,” Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said in a statement. “Maine has a long history of high voter participation in our elections – including being No. 1 for turnout in November 2022 – and we hope this new law inspires more voters to turn out in the March and June primaries next year.”

Maine is one of only seven states, along with New Hampshire and Massachusetts, that allows unaffiliated voters to vote in a partisan primary without registering with the party, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An additional 16 states have totally open primaries, where voters are not asked about their party registration and their ballot selection remains private, allowing people to cross party lines, the conference said.

For decades, unenrolled voters made up the largest voting bloc in Maine. But in recent years, as politics have become more partisan, voters have been choosing sides. Today, unenrolled voters make up nearly 29% of the state’s 929,017 registered voters, while Democrats make up 37% and Republicans make up about 30%.



Melcher said the semi-open primaries could create an incentive for more voters to become – and remain – unenrolled from a political party. And more of those unenrolled voters may choose to vote in the Republican presidential primary, given that President Biden does not appear to have any serious challenger at this point, he said.

“I think that’s going to be the single biggest impact of this,” Melcher said. “This might lead to ‘unenrolled’ again being the No. 1 category because there’s more an incentive for people to be unenrolled than in the past.”

Critics of open and semi-open primaries worry that the system can be gamed by the opposition, who might vote for a candidate in the opposing party who is most likely to lose in the general election.

That’s a concern for Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, who is undecided in the 2024 primary but said she was impressed by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s performance at the first Republican debate on Wednesday in Wisconsin.

“I fear some voters will game the semi-open primary and vote for the candidate least likely to win in the general election,” Arata said. “I haven’t decided who to support yet. I am impressed by the depth and qualifications of the field of candidates. Nikki Haley’s respectful and practical responses made her stand out.”


Other party leaders, including Maine Republican Party Chairman Joel Stetkis, House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham and Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart could not be reached for an interview Thursday to discuss who they’re supporting or how the semi-open primary could affect the nomination process.

But Melcher said such political gaming – or “mischief,” as he likes to call it – can backfire. He pointed to the 2008 presidential race, when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh encouraged Republicans to enroll as Democrats during the primary to support Barack Obama’s candidacy over former first lady Hillary Clinton, whom he saw as the more formidable opponent. Obama went on to defeat Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican John McCain in the general election.

“That’s the problem with mischief voting – it doesn’t always end up the way you think it will,” Melcher said.

Meanwhile, the criminal indictments seem to be doing little to affect Trump’s support in Maine.


The UNH survey of 555 people from Aug. 17-21 released Thursday showed a vast partisan divide over Trump’s indictments. The Pine Tree State Poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.


Only 11% to 14% of Republicans believe Trump committed a crime in each of his four indictments, compared to 98% to 99% of Democrats surveyed.

But, a majority of unenrolled voters believe Trump committed a crime, something that could dampen support in the semi-open primary. The highest percentage of independents believe he committed a crime to overturn the 2020 election results and aided the Jan. 6 riots (64%), while the smallest percentage believed he committed a crime in paying hush money to an adult film star (56%).

Meanwhile, 26% of all people surveyed continue to believe the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election. Not surprisingly, that belief is strongest among those who voted for Trump (59%). Sixty-one percent of those surveyed believe Biden won, including 99% of those who voted for him.

The poll also shows that criminal allegations against Hunter Biden, the president’s son, are registering with independents.

Unenrolled voters appear swayed by Republican charges that Hunter Biden committed crimes in his business dealings (62%) and that he’s getting favorable treatment. That’s compared to 89% of Republicans and 18% of Democrats who believed Hunter Biden committed a crime. The poll did not ask whether respondents believe the president has had any role in the investigations of Hunter Biden, as some Republicans have claimed.

Both Smith and Melcher agree that it’s too soon say how Maine’s primary will play out, since there are months to go and the slate of candidates is bound to change, especially after initial results in Iowa and New Hampshire become known.

“Party nomination fights can be unpredictable,” Melcher said. “Although in this race, it seems like we’re headed toward another Biden-Trump rematch, there’s a lot that can happen now between now and the primaries and caucuses, especially with all of the things going on with Donald Trump. … It will be interesting to watch.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story