Mainers are Mainers at caucuses



Maine had its little moment in the presidential sun this weekend as the political parties held their nominating caucuses. Republicans met on Saturday, giving Sen. Ted Cruz another win. Democrats met on Sunday with Sen. Bernie Sanders thumping former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Maine Republicans’ preference for Cruz makes Gov. Paul LePage 0 for 2. The first candidate he endorsed, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, withdrew from the race a month ago after he failed to live up to his own or anyone else’s expectations. Our governor then shifted his support to Donald Trump, who was beaten by 13 percentage points in the Maine caucuses.

On Saturday night, we were on CNN in the person of Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, who exulted in the caucus turnout and rendered the outcome in exquisite detail. After an Oscar-worthy list of thank-you’s and a gripping recitation of Maine’s county-by-county vote, he finally got to the bottom line and revealed that Cruz had taken almost 46 percent of the vote. Trailing behind were Donald Trump (BusTED!) at 33 percent, John Kasich at 12 percent and Marco Rubio at 8 percent.

Republican turnout, at over 18,000 voters, was three times what it was in 2012. That’s great for our democracy – or is it? As of last September, there were 263,735 registered Republicans, so less than 7 percent of party voters came out to select the nominee.

Maine is one of just 13 states that hold caucuses rather than a primary, and there is plenty of controversy about the process. On the one hand, caucuses are considered to represent democracy in its purest form. On the other, they are criticized for their complex and ever-changing rules and require an investment of time that most voters are not willing to make.

Maine Republicans created something of a hybrid caucus this year, retaining the public participation aspect but switching the voting method to secret ballot. This meant that participants could show up, cast a ballot and get out of Dodge, or stay as long as they wished to watch the fun and hear candidates’ surrogates argue for their Chosen One.

Votes cast at the Republican caucuses are binding as long as a candidate has received 10 percent of the vote. Had any candidate received at least 50 percent of the vote, he would have been awarded all 23 Maine delegates. Because none did, delegates were awarded proportionately and are duty-bound to vote accordingly at the national convention in July, at least on the first ballot.

There were 22 Republican caucus sites, most representing an entire county, with some additional sites in the largest counties. Republicans will hold a state convention in April, but the work of selecting delegates for the national convention is done.

Democrats take a very different approach, with about 500 caucuses representing Maine’s municipalities. Attendees vote for their preference by standing together in the designated space for their candidate. Delegates awarded to the candidates at the caucuses will attend a state convention in May, where 25 delegates to the national convention will be selected.

If this sounds cumbersome, it is.

But wait, there’s more.

For Democrats, national delegates also are apportioned by congressional district, 10 to the 1st CD and seven to the 2nd CD. The remaining eight are assigned to the statewide winner.

Then there is the matter of Democratic superdelegates. About 712 (15 percent) of national convention delegates are party luminaries: mayors, governors, members of Congress or party chairs. They may vote however it suits them. Of these, 460 already are committed to Hillary Clinton, just 20 to Bernie Sanders.

By all reports, Democratic caucus turnout was enormous. One source put it at over 46,000. If true, that would be about a 15 percent turnout rate, roughly twice that of Republican voters.

In Portland, Democrats waited outside for hours to get in to vote. Officials made adjustments on the fly to get voters in, tallied and out. Sen. Justin Alfond moved quickly to submit a bill to make Maine a primary state once again. The senator will need the support of the Legislative Council to get a bill admitted at this point in the session.

He might well get it. Turnout on the Republican side also was a management challenge. It could be time for Maine to abandon the caucus and conduct primary elections again. On behalf of his overwhelmed city, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling joined the call to switch Maine back to a primary state.

The Democratic turnout, termed “insanely high,” appears to have been a reflection of the enthusiasm for Sanders, who won the caucus by a country mile with an unofficial 64 percent of the vote shortly after the caucuses closed.

Now the national spotlight has moved on, Maine having once again demonstrated its willingness to march to its own drummers. The party faithful rejected the frontrunners on both sides of the aisle. It may forecast a shift in the election, but more likely it is just Mainers being Mainers.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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