“As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” is an old saying about American presidential politics that gained currency in the 19th century, when Maine was a bellwether state in several elections. It fell out of favor after 1936, when Maine and Vermont were the only states carried by Alf Landon in FDR’s landslide win that year. After the ensuing quip, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont,” went viral, 1930s-style, the original saying was eventually consigned to the historical dustbin. But “As Maine goes, so goes Michigan,” might revive its popularity.
The 2016 Maine Democratic caucuses took place this past Sunday. The turnout shattered records, and may have also shattered any hope of repeating Maine’s experiment in choosing presidential candidates by caucus.
Even though—as in other states this year—the caucus process favored my candidate, Bernie Sanders, by the end of the day, with Bernie having won the town by almost three to one and the crowd mostly cleared out, I was nevertheless ready to hop on the bipartisan bandwagon that was already gathering steam across the state, and replace the caucus with a state primary.
At that point—having just finished counting the Bernie ballots the crowd had turned in (I was one of the Bernie caucus captains)—I didn’t even know about the half-mile long waiting line in Portland, or the four-hour wait people had to endure in the cold just to get in there.
But even though it was my first caucus, having moved to Maine just before the 2012 election, I had seen enough—of how easily numbers could overwhelm the process even in my small town, and how much more intensive organizing is required for a caucus than for a primary. Also, the stated reason for having a caucus rather than a primary—to use the town hall-style meetings to build local party organizations—isn’t really being met. Very few people checked off the boxes on their forms to indicate their willingness to serve on the town or county Democratic committees. And these are the people who are active and concerned enough to show up for a caucus every four years, already a small percentage of the citizenry.
The party needs a different way to organize voters. If abandoning the caucus forces them to pursue that path, so much the better.
The Republicans also had problems with their caucuses the day before, which were, again, overwhelmed by the turnout. In some towns, they ended up turning the caucus into a quasi-primary, letting people just cast their ballots and leave, because there wasn’t enough room to accommodate all the bodies swarming into the caucus locations. That happened in my county, York, which didn’t surprise me. I’d thought there would be problems when I first heard that there would only be one place to caucus for the whole county. But that thought apparently didn’t occur to the organizers.
I feel like a traitor to democracy by supporting Maine’s move to a presidential primary—especially because the caucus system seems to leave the door more open to insurgents like Bernie, and to their obviously more energized partisans. But as the Michigan primary two days after Maine’s caucus showed, there is still room in the primary system for an insurgent to break through, with the right message and a solid grassroots organization. (And of course, a highly flawed opponent.)
I didn’t personally see any commentary about the impact of trade issues on Bernie’s lopsided victory in Maine (or in Kansas and Minnesota, his other caucus wins last weekend). But trade has been important to Maine since its founding, and international trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) threaten important state industries like lobster fishing and shoe manufacturing. There’s no doubt trade played a role in the caucus results.
The Maine House of Delegates unanimously adopted a resolution several years ago stating its opposition to giving the president “fast track” trade promotion authority—which finally squeaked through Congress last fall, in spite of largely Democratic opposition to Obama’s TPP maneuvers. It’s also important to note in that regard that, in that controversial vote, Maine was the only state whose entire congressional delegation—one Democrat, one independent, and two Republicans—voted against fast track.
“Free trade” is not an easy sell in Maine.
So Maine’s vote on Sunday, with its undercurrent of backlash against Obama’s trade policies (and his abandonment of his 2008 campaign promise to “fix NAFTA”) and against Hillary’s too-cute-by-half flirtations with those same policies, can be viewed as a foreshadowing of what happened in Michigan two days later, with its very certain emphasis on trade. And it may also foreshadow the rise to prominence of the trade issue in the upcoming Rust Belt primaries, and in other coastal states like Maine, where international trade features largely in their economies.
In which case, and with any luck, maybe we can resurrect “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” after all. And that would be a good thing.