The Maine Bellwether: Penobscot County

I grew up, went to school, went to college and got married in Penobscot County. It is my home, and I will forever consider it as my home even if I were to someday live on the Moon.

I have always thought of Penobscot County as “middle Maine.” Because of all the regions in Maine, it is the most indicative of the state as a whole.

Maine, as we all know, is a pretty diverse state with vast cultural differences between northern and southern Maine, the coast, the western lakes, the inland region and Down East.

Yet Penobscot County seems to be a convergence of so much of the rest of the state that you can get a sense of Maine — from cityscapes to farmland — if you spend any time there.

It turns out that my impression of Penobscot County is reflected somewhere else: the state’s politics.

If you want to know who is going to win the next major election in Maine, spend some time with your friends from Penobscot County, and see what they think. Only twice in the past 60 years (1994 and 1958) has it failed to vote for the eventual winner of Maine’s gubernatorial election.

That’s 18 out of the last 20 races it got right. And the two they got wrong they just barely got wrong.

In 2010, Penobscot supported Republican Paul LePage (41.9 percent) over independent Eliot Cutler (39.4 percent) and Democrat Libby Mitchell (13.5 percent). In 2006, it chose Democrat John Baldacci over Republican Chandler Woodcock. In 2002, it went with Baldacci over Peter Cianchette. In 1998, independent Angus King was the preferred candidate.

In the most recent instance it picked a losing candidate, 1994, Penobscot supported Susan Collins (33.6 percent) over Joe Brennan (29.4 percent) and Angus King (28.7 percent). This was due mostly to how strongly Collins ran in the most rural areas of the county (a hallmark of all her political campaigns), Joe Brennan being a southern Maine liberal, and Angus King being an unknown commodity in politics at the time. Nonetheless, it did show how close that three-way race was.

But before 1994, the trend continued. In 1990 it chose Republican John McKernan, as it did in 1986. In both 1982 and 1978 it voted for Brennan, a Democrat. In 1974 it went with independent Jim Longley. In 1970 and 1966 the choice was Democrat Kenneth Curtis. In 1962 and 1960 (Maine had changed from two-year terms to four-year terms in 1962) it selected Republican John Reed.

The year 1958 was another error, as Penobscot supported Republican Horace Hildreth over Democrat Clinton Clausen, and Clausen won the election. Perhaps residents of the county were distracted by the incredibly alliterative nature of that race, but even though they got it wrong, they just barely got it wrong. Clausen beat Hildreth 51.98 percent to 48.02 percent, and Penobscot gave the nod to Hildreth 50.22 percent to 49.78 percent.

The fun continues in 1956 and 1954 when it chose Democrat Ed Muskie, 1952 when it chose Republican Burton Cross and 1950 and 1948 when it chose Republican Frederick Payne.

For Senate and congressional races, its choice tends to be just as good, so I won’t bother to spell them all out.

The point in mentioning all this is that Maine is about to live through a very contentious, interesting three-way race between Gov. LePage, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, and independent Eliot Cutler. There will be a lot of opinions about how well each is doing, where the polls sit, and who may or may not be winning.

Penobscot County is the very heart of Maine. When Maine grows, it grows. When Maine changes, it changes. It has cities like Bangor, suburban communities like my old hometown of Hampden, and expansive, rural lands. It has townships. It has a major university and surrounding communities full of young, liberally minded college students. It has mills and unions and businesses and investors. White collar. Blue collar. You name it, it’s there.

That unique cross representation, and its geographic location at the center of the state, means that it represents a microcosm of the whole of Maine and can tell us how the race is playing out.

Polling is nice, but a pollster oversampling southern (or northern) Maine by 10 or 20 respondents, or failing to create a good cross-section of voters, could give us bad results.

So if you have a chance to stop by a pizza place in the area on some Friday night and hear people talking about politics at the table next to you, do a little eavesdropping, and you might just hear which way the wind is blowing before it even blows.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.