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Unpacking Maine's Super Tuesday Results

Robert F. Bukaty
Election clerks check in voters for the primary election, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.

Maine's first presidential primary election in two decades is in the books, and while the final vote tally isn't done, there is a lot to digest from the results that we do have.

And we had a decisive result on Question 1, the people's veto referendum that sought to overturn a new vaccine law that eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions parents can claim if they want to enroll kids in school.

Host Nora Flaherty spoke with Chief Political Correspondent Steve Mistler to discuss the results.

Flaherty: Let's start with the results in Question 1, which saw supporters of the new vaccine law handily beat back an attempt to repeal it, and by an overwhelming margin — 73 percent to 27 percent, with nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting. Yet, opponents of the law asserted last night that the vote didn't settle the debate. 

Cara Sacks, who led the repeal campaign: "This vote is not a true indication of where the people of Maine stand on this issue."

Flaherty: With such a decisive vote, why do opponents of the vaccine law find the result unconvincing?

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Assn., speaks at a news conference with doctors opposed to Question 1, the religious and philosophical exemptions referendum on vaccinations, at the State House, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in August, Maine.

Mistler: Cara Sacks didn't really elaborate on that last night, but it's likely that her campaign believed that the contest was tilted against them, and that's because it was held alongside the Democratic presidential primary.

If you recall, Question 1 was a grassroots effort really led by religious conservatives and libertarians who viewed the repeal of nonmedical exemptions as an infringement on personal and parental freedom. And while the vaccine debate certainly crosses party and ideological lines, the effort to repeal the law was mainly backed by conservatives, including the Maine Republican Party. So if you look at the results through that lens, you'll likely come away thinking that a conservative-led people's veto stood little chance, because it was held at the same time as a Democratic presidential primary that had an extremely high-turnout.

And opponents of the vaccine law were worried about that from the get-go, and they actually tried to get the referendum on the June ballot when Republicans would go to the polls for congressional and legislative primaries. But because the Legislature last passed a bill that created a presidential primary and moved it up to Super Tuesday, the people's veto referendum was held yesterday instead.

Flaherty: Do you think the timing played into the final result?

Mistler: I'm sure it contributed to the size of their defeat, but I'm not sure holding it another time would have changed the result. For one thing, roughly 156,000 more people voted on Question 1 than those who voted in the Democratic primary.

Another point to note here is that around 95 percent of parents vaccinated their kids in accordance with the old vaccine law, so an overwhelming majority of people believe that's the right thing to do. The question was always whether those same people would turn out to defend a law that supporters argued was in the interest of public health. At the end of the day, a lot of people did — so much so that Dr. Laura Blaisdell, one of the co-chairs of the No On 1 campaign, said the result would send a signal to other states looking to pair back their vaccine exemptions.

Blaisdell: "To be able to once again restore community immunities for our schools in Maine is historic. This is a bellwether referendum that other states are going to be watching closely."

Flaherty: I also wonder whether news of the coronavirus influenced the vote. Any sense of that?

Mistler: We don't have any data to back that up, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a factor. A sense of comfort and complacency could have kept some people home on Tuesday, but an outbreak of an infectious disease for which we don't currently have a vaccine could certainly remind people of the need for vaccines.

Credit Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Los Angeles

Flaherty: Ok, let's switch to the Democratic presidential primary. The Associated Press called the race Wednesday, and it was very close. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the contest over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by roughly 2,000 votes. Does this qualify as an upset?

Mistler: Absolutely. Four years ago Sanders absolutely romped in the Maine caucuses in 2016, and he was the favorite heading into Maine's first presidential primary in 20 years. A poll released last week by Colby College had him with a comfortable lead, and Biden was fourth — and out of the running for any share of Maine's 24 delegates. But something extraordinary happened in Maine and the 13 other Super Tuesday states. Biden won South Carolina, two of his moderate challengers dropped out and endorsed him, and all of a sudden he found himself riding this wave of moderate voters.

It's really stunning when you think about it, because Biden literally had no campaign operation in Maine or many of the other super Tuesday states that he won. He spent nothing on TV ads here. He had no high-profile surrogates here. He didn't even have a watch party. Bernie Sanders had all of those things, and he couldn't quite get the victory.

Flaherty: And it was a high-turnout election, right? Wasn't that supposed to benefit Sanders?

Mistler: Yes, it was. Four years ago, 48,000 people participated in the presidential caucus that Sanders absolutely ran away with. Yesterday, at least 200,000 registered Democrats voted in the primary. I understand that's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the fact is more Democrats turned out from all over the state, and it ultimately benefited Joe Biden, which is very surprising.

Flaherty: Why do you think that is?

Mistler: Well, we don't have any data yet to support this theory, but one could argue that moderate Democrats were ambivalent about their choices before Biden's win in South Carolina. If your primary concern in the 2020 election is defeating President Donald Trump, and you think a moderate candidate is the best way to do that, being conflicted about your choices not only makes choosing a candidate difficult, it could actually discourage you from voting. But Biden's South Carolina victory and the subsequent endorsements of his rivals really clarified their choices. It sure looks like that clarity of choice drove a lot of people to the polls.

Flaherty: My understanding is that the delegate apportionment is still ongoing, so it's not a total loss for Sanders in Maine, right?

Mistler: That's correct. Biden will have a slight edge in delegates, but Sanders certainly isn't leaving empty-handed.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.