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Analysts Say Maine Independent Voters Aren’t All That Independent

Paul Sancya
Associated Press
Melcher says most independent voters do lean either toward the Republican or Democratic party, and they tend to vote accordingly in general elections.

The largest group of registered voters in Maine is not enrolled in any political party. They prefer to call themselves “independents,” but studies show that relatively few of these Mainers are truly free of partisan leanings.

Following the election of independent Governor James Longley in the 1970s, the number of registered voters who were not registered as members of a political party continued to grow. The trend was bolstered by Angus King’s election as governor in the 1990’s and as an independent senator in 2012. Political observers say that many Mainers like the idea that they are independent, and may vote as they see fit.

“Maine’s politics are fairly intimate,” says Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “People still go door-to-door to ask for votes. I think Maine voters have a little more sense of control over the outcome of their votes than in California, where I grew up.”

Many independent voters also share another trait, says Jim Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington. “What a lot of independents share is a distaste for parties,” says Melcher. “That they see parties as setting up competition, too much bickering and not problem solving enough.”

But despite these tendencies, Melcher says most independent voters do lean either toward the Republican or Democratic party, and they tend to vote accordingly in general elections.

University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer says this growing perception — that voters who shun political parties are also highly objective — has been shown in studies to be inaccurate.

“We have this image of the highly informed, highly educated, independent voter who tracks things carefully and makes up their own mind. That’s a myth,” he says.

Brewer says there are some true independent voters who do not lean to either major party, but he says they are small in number. A study by the Pew Research Center of the 2016 Maine electorate placed that number at 13 percent, just over one-third of the total number of independent voters, who make up about 35 percent of all registered voters in Maine.

Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England, says research shows that independents provide consistent support to the parties on election day.

“I see no evidence that fewer people are leaning towards one party or another,” Duff says. “Independent leaners basically act like the members of the party. They vote almost as consistently.”

All of the political scientists interviewed for this story point out, however, that independents do not turn out to vote in the same percentages as party members, and that it is the partisan voters that make Maine’s turnout one of the highest in the nation. In 2014, a year with a hotly contested Governor’s race, independents made up 37 percent of registered voters, but only 20 percent of those who actually went to the polls.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.