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Why is Maine so Politically Independent?

File photo

One of the things that's surprising about Maine, coming from away, is how different politics are here.

"A lot of this goes back to our town meeting tradition"
— Kenneth Palmer, UMaine

A little background: Before moving here last summer, I'd spent my life living in and around places with well-known political machines and partisan histories: Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York City. Although those machines aren't anywhere near as strong as they once were — and in some cases no longer exist — they color the way people in those areas think about politics and about politicians. In some areas, being a "Democrat" or "Republican" is about as strong self-identifier as it gets.

So when I found out that Maine has elected not one but two independent, or "unenrolled," governors — James B. Longley from 1975 to 1979 and Angus King, now one of Maine's U.S. senators, from 1995 to 2003 — I was surprised. Mainers also came close to electing independent Eliot Cutler in 2010.

It turns out, Maine is in fact unusually independent. And that independent tradition goes deeper than just a couple gubernatorial races: The state has more unenrolled voters than it does voters registered with either of the major parties and is also one of the most reliably "purple" states, which means in both statewide and presidential elections, Mainers may vote for a member of either party. (This wasn't always true, by the way: For a long time, Maine was strongly associated with moderate Republicanism. That ended in 1955 when Mainers elected Democrat Edmund Muskie governor.)

So, what's going on? What makes Maine so special in this way? Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus in political science at the University of Maine and the author of several books on Maine politics, says there are a few reasons.

Maine's 'communitarian culture'

Palmer says that what political scientists call "communitarianism" is key to understanding why Mainers don't tend to be as closely affiliated with parties, and why they often vote for independent candidates.

(story continues below interactive map)

Basically, Mainers expect their community to be involved in politics, and for politics to serve them, not a political class or party machine. "A lot of this goes back to our town meeting tradition, in which the citizens of a community would come together once a year ... and basically set the policies for the town. Eventually of course we had to have more elected officials, but the emphasis on citizen involvement is very strong."

Palmer says this also goes back to Maine's frontier tradition, which he says really made participation an important part of the culture.

Mainers are exceptionally politically engaged

  Politicians have personal relationships with their constituents. Again, this likely goes back to the state's town meeting tradition, and interestingly, it's pretty exceptional for a largely rural state. "Some of the demographics that tend to explain high participation in other states, such as high levels of income [and] education ... aren't really true in Maine, yet nonetheless we still have very high turnout."

Maine's not big on 'professional politicians'

Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN
Eliot Cutler

Party machines like the kind you see in some big American cities — where you have a political class whose job is doing politics — affect political and social life in a lot of ways, and one of those ways is that they entrench party divisions.

In Maine, those kinds of organizations didn't develop, in part because Maine's population, scattered across 450 often-tiny communities, can't support them. In contrast, Palmer says, "political machines tend to thrive most generally in large, densely populated areas, mainly large cities." In Maine, which the census found to be the most rural state in the nation in 2010, conditions just aren't right for it.

So what does that mean? For one thing, politics in Maine is much more of an "amateur operation," says Palmer. And, since people aren't as often part of entrenched party system, they tend to be more moderate in their politics, and to simply vote for candidates they feel can best serve them. And lawmakers tend to work better with members of other parties in the Legislature.

We've heard a lot about how state-level politics are being more and more affected by ideologically driven money from national organizations. But in Maine, says Palmer, this is less likely to happen – and it's for the same reasons that Maine's pretty independent now.

Credit blainehouse.org
James Longley

Maine communities — and legislative districts — are small, and spending from outside, ideologically driven organizations tends to go to TV advertising, usually negative ads. Palmer says in Maine, this doesn't really make a lot of sense: "Most legislative candidates don't advertise, certainly widely, on television, because the TV market is so much greater than their particular legislative district, which may be about 9,000 people for the house, that it's not cost-effective in any way to pour all that money in."

Also, Mainers like to know their candidates: "you can't sell somebody on TV as easily as perhaps in some states because Mainers like to see their candidate in person."

This is the first story in a new occasional series we're calling "Explain Maine." It's a look at some of the things that are unique, interesting and quirky about our great state; and we hope to solve some Maine mysteries as well. We're looking for your input on this as well: What have you always wondered about Maine? Or what do you think people should know about our state's history, culture or politics? Let us know at www.mpbn.net/ExplainMaine.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.