The phrase “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” is an old aphorism that hasn’t been true in a long time. It was popularized due to Maine’s status as a political bellwether state for presidential elections.
Elections were held in Maine in September, and the party that won the governorship would go on to win the White House two months later nearly every time from 1840 through 1932.
But Maine didn’t much like Franklin Roosevelt — it was one of only two states that never voted for FDR — and would later move its elections to November with the rest of the country. The phrase was no longer true and became something of a joke.
But this year Maine is proving that it might have a little juice left yet, and that it still knows how to be ahead of the curve.
The state of Pennsylvania — and indeed a few states in the rust belt — are considering changing how they allocate their electoral votes in presidential elections, and they are following the Maine model.
The Constitution outlines the process by which we choose our president. States are allocated a number of “electors” equal to the number of senators and members of Congress they possess, and the election is determined by which candidate wins a majority of those electors.
But the Constitution does not specify how states allocate their electors. Forty-eight states have chosen a “winner take all” system, whereby the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state is entitled to all of the state’s electors. Win California in 2012 and you will receive 55 electoral votes. Win Texas and you will get 38.
Maine and Nebraska, however, go with a different method. These states award two votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote and then award the rest based on which candidate won each individual congressional district. This is an entirely different, and in my mind much more appropriate, way of expressing the will of a state.
It is unfortunate that so many conservative voters in deeply Democratic states such as California or Massachusetts have no ability to make their voices heard in the electoral college. It is equally unfortunate that so many liberal voters in deeply Republican states such as Texas and Georgia do not have that voice either.
In Pennsylvania, there has been a deep tension about presidential politics for decades. There is an enormous disconnect between the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the rest of the state. The cities, based on their population and deep partisan lean, end up deciding all the elections and speaking for the rest of the state, and a lot of Pennsylvanians have resented that for a long time.
Their solution is to adopt the Maine and Nebraska model. This would preserve the voice of the cities — the people inside them are represented in multiple congressional districts and thus exert a powerful influence — but it would also give a voice to the rest of the state and allow them to register their choice for who they want.
There is no question that the move, dreamed up by Pennsylvania Republicans, is a partisan one designed to help elect a Republican president. But that doesn’t make it wrong, and were this system implemented in all 50 states, the Democrats would benefit just as much as the Republicans.
Right now, presidential candidates spend nearly all of their time in half a dozen “battleground states,” overwhelm them with money and volunteers and ignore the rest of the country.
Making a change like this nationally would give an incentive for Republican candidates to show up in New York, Washington, Oregon, California or any of the other solidly blue states.
It would give similar incentive for Democrats to show up in the Deep South, the Midwest and many of the solidly red states.
Candidates of both parties have been writing off entire states and indeed entire areas of the country for decades. Campaigning nationwide and fighting for votes in more than just a handful of states would benefit both. It might give future presidents some perspective about how the other half of the country that their party has been ignoring all these years actually lives.