By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
AUBURN, Maine -- Can it be that this small city, known in the 19th century for its shoe manufacturing, has emerged as a power center in the 2016 presidential election? But not just Auburn. Also Millinocket, the old paper town. And Presque Isle, in the middle of potato country. Plus Jackman, whose 859 souls live hard by the Canadian border -- and where in some years the ice fishing starts while the rest of the country is thinking about Thanksgiving.
These far-flung Maine communities, ordinarily not even afterthoughts in a presidential election, are at the center of the battle for the White House because of a peculiar wrinkle in a 1972 Maine law that awards a single electoral vote to the candidate who wins this congressional district, which is nearly as large as the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.
An unusual confluence of events conspires to make this part of Maine a special target of businessman Donald J. Trump, who, according to a Maine Sunday Telegram poll, holds a 15-point lead over former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the area, even though she leads elsewhere in the state. Might Trump split the state and win this one electoral vote?
"No one has ever pulled this off," said Angus King Jr., an Independent U.S. senator and former governor, "but this time it looks like it's very possible."
This northern congressional district of Maine -- where often the snow is, as Robert Smith put it in his Depression-era memoir of life in a Maine logging camp, "so deep that it would hide a horse right to his ears" -- is far more conservative than the southern district, where the Clinton lead is commanding. Though the region voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, residents here are angry that this summer the president declared Maine's North Woods a national park -- a decision embraced by environmentalists but that will redound to the disadvantage of Clinton here. And political experts believe there will be a large turnout of anti-Democratic voters, drawn to the polls by a citizen-initiated referendum on background checks for the sale or transfer of guns.
The area, moreover, has had its share of economic struggles -- and shares what Sarah Orne Jewett, the beloved Maine novelist, once called "the general desolation." Though New Balance has three athletic-footwear factories in the area, the mills and manufacturing plants of Auburn, nearby Lewiston and elsewhere are largely gone, potato production is down, sardine canning has disappeared, and logging and fishing are in distress. Many voters, like Trump supporters elsewhere, blame NAFTA for their troubles; Canada in this case, not Mexico, is the villain.
The result is a target of opportunity for Trump -- and a fast-moving defensive action by the Clinton campaign.
"We're getting a lot of attention right now," said Paul H. Mills, a Farmington attorney who is an independent political analyst.
With more to come. This may be a sparsely populated slice of America -- it is the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi -- but it is rich in political tradition.
Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg before winning four terms as governor and then becoming president of Bowdoin College, was from Brewer, across the Penobscot River from Bangor. Edmund S. Muskie -- governor, senator, Democratic vice presidential nominee and secretary of state -- was born in Rumford and went to Bates College, just across the mighty Androscoggin River in Lewiston. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a landmark female presidential candidate and a respected voice of conscience during the McCarthy era, lived in Skowhegan, on the Kennebec River about halfway between Portland and the Canadian border.
"This is an area full of very independent people," said former Sen. Olympia Snowe, an Auburn native who represented this district in the House for 16 years and voted against NAFTA. "They let me serve for the country, the state and the party -- in that order."
States ordinarily do not split their electoral votes, which customarily are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. But there have been several instances of split votes, many during the era before 1804 when electors cast two votes without specifying which was for president and which was for vice president. Maryland, North Carolina, Illinois and New York permitted split votes later in the 19th century. Maine sent eight electoral votes to John Quincy Adams in 1828 and one to the eventual winner, Andrew Jackson.
A few exceptions followed, mostly because voters selected individual electors rather than a slate pledged to one candidate. Today, only Maine and Nebraska permit split voting; eight years ago, Nebraska awarded four votes to Sen. John McCain and a single vote to Obama.
And while Maine's procedures are unusual, some analysts believe they might become a national model, quieting longstanding criticism of the Electoral College as an antiquated, undemocratic way to select a president.
"This is a method of getting away from one-party states so that separate regions of a state can become more competitive," said L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, just outside the boundary of the contested area. "It's usually meaningless in Nebraska and Maine, but it would have a great deal of meaning in larger states that have some congressional districts that go in different directions. In that sense it's a democratic reform. It isn't a solution to every problem, but it's a state-by-state solution that more nearly resembles one-person-one-vote."
The Maine opportunity hasn't gone unnoticed over the years. George H.W. Bush, who has a summer home along the southern coast of Maine, put on a small push here, as did McCain. Neither prevailed. This year is different, in part because the controversial sitting governor, Paul LePage, is close to Trump -- and the LePage political base, in Waterville where he once served as mayor, abuts this contested area.
Then again, the popular Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from remote Caribou in the center of this district, has indicated she would not vote for Trump.
"This district fight could be real relevant if the presidential race is close," said Chris Lehane, who ran Bill Clinton's 1992 Maine campaign, when he was forced to mobilize to meet the threat that third-party candidate H. Ross Perot, who eventually came in second to Clinton in the state, might actually win in this district. "I didn't want to be the only guy in living memory to lose a single electoral vote."
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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