Maine’s place in the presidential caucus primary March marathon

8 mins read
Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

By Paul Mills

We’re now on the brink of yet another Super Tuesday, the first in which winner-take-all presidential primaries are permitted: Ohio and Florida. Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina are among the others also hosting crucial primaries this week. With the dust just settling from the Maine caucuses, it’s an opportunity to take a quick glimpse at both Maine’s past and future role in the March marathon.

A week ago, this columnist saw first hand one of the more dramatic illustrations of conditions which may soon provoke a major change in the presidential selection odyssey. This was in Portland, Maine’s largest city. There, well over 3,000 Democratic caucus-goers endured a chilly-aired three-hour wait at the city’s only caucus site—Deering High School. Some tossed up their hands in despair and turned around, leaving without voting. Rain or snow would have made the situation even more daunting.

Though in most elections, where older voters tend to turn out in higher numbers, last Sunday’s Portland event appeared to have belied this demographic. This columnist’s non-scientific assessment was that the median age was early 30s and many appear to have been turning out for the first time. Few, however, seemed to have been adequately dressed for an occasion which required nearly all to stand in place without moving in the protracted intervals between occasions when the half mile long line tended to move, and then only at mere inches at a time.

The ordeal also compelled the party to convert to an impromptu primary election, which also meant dispensing with mandatory attendance at presentations by the candidates’ surrogates.

At the Deering High School gymnasium, personal presentations still occurred, though the ranks of those attending were thinned out to about a meager 300, in part because so many were still waiting in line to get in, also in part because this phase of the process was now deemed less obligatory.

Stirring testimonials for everything from legalizing recreational marijuana, mandatory higher minimum wages to a smorgasbord of other causes still occurred.

Though Portland in overwhelming numbers favored Sanders, Clinton still had the most prominent advocate. This was former First District Congressman Tom Allen, a Rhodes Scholar colleague of former President Clinton himself. Despite his support for Hillary, Allen characterized the first six months of Bill Clinton’s presidency as “disastrous” and made note of the cost of inexperience to the present Obama administration. This was an attempt to illustrate that had Clinton and Obama been buttressed by greater national governmental administrative experience, each would have been a more successful first-term president; since Hillary Clinton now had such experience, the mishaps of her husband’s and Obama’s times would, according to Allen’s narrative, be averted.

In any event, the ordeal of the caucus procedure, particularly in Portland has now sparked a bi-partisan movement to restore primary voting at the presidential level in Maine, something with which the state had experimented in both 1996 and 2000. These both occurred the first Tuesday of March. Even with such an early time window, Maine’s role proved in 1996 to be anti-climactic and in 2000 was drowned out by simultaneous voting in more high profile states.

Maine in that era became part of the “Yankee Primary,” so-named because occurring on the same day as those in all other New England states except New Hampshire. In 1996 – when Bob Dole defeated Patrick Buchanan – Dole had already clinched the nomination three days earlier by his win in South Carolina. (President Clinton was unopposed on the Democratic side.) Maine’s role was thus not decisive even though it then occurred a week earlier than Super Tuesday.

Four years later, we were on the same page as Super Tuesday, part of the largest presidential primary day up to that point in U.S. history, one that included such delegate-rich states as California and New York—among a total of 16 holding elections that day. We then backed the winner in both parties, George Bush over John McCain on the GOP side and Al Gore over Bill Bradley on the Democratic. Because so many more influential states were voting at the same time, Maine got a bit lost in the shuffle.

Thus, the first challenge that party leaders will have in soon-to-be-pending legislation to restore the primary is picking a date. Some states such as Illinois and California consolidate their presidential primary with contests for local and state offices. The drawback here would be that to accomplish this in Maine would require either postponing the presidential primary to June – a date where the whole presidential process is done and over with in nearly all other states – or front-loading the entire process including nomination of over 250 legislators, sheriffs, county commissioners and other officials. This occurs in Illinois, for example, which merges both its presidential and state primaries on the same day this week.

It is thus likely that in the emerging Maine legislation, a stand-alone presidential primary rather than one that’s consolidated with our state primary will be the outcome.

A possible obstacle here will not be the cost at the state level, estimated last week by the Secretary of State’s office to be in the neighborhood of $75,000 to $100,000. That cost is paltry compared to the challenge facing the 573 local precincts, through which primaries in Maine are primarily administered.

Unlike the caucus system staffed by party volunteers, the primary election system is largely a local government responsibility.

A sampling of some 35 towns and cities just last week of their anticipated costs of a single event primary gives some indication of the likely overhead.

Bangor city clerk’s office, for example, estimated the cost there would be $14,000. Other examples: Brunswick: $7,500; Lisbon: $2,170; Farmington: $1,200. In the aggregate, the cost at the local level of such a stand-alone presidential primary of the some 5,000 ballot clerks required to be on hand for, during and after the 12-hour voting day would thus be in the range of about half a million.

It still appears likely, however, notwithstanding the challenges of both the timing as well as the financing of the proposed restoration of the presidential primary that the year 2020 will see a significantly different path to the approach Maine takes.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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