The “split-the-vote” fallacy

Now that the race to replace Sen. Olympia Snowe actually looks like, well, a race, we are already starting to hear the hand-wringing from the left. It goes a little like this:

“It is happening again. The Republicans can’t get elected on their own, so their only hope is splitting the vote from the liberal, progressive majority, so they can sneak into office. Just like Gov. Paul LePage did.”

This is the same twisted logic that has convinced the so-called “61 percent” Maine Majority to think of themselves as some two-thirds consensus of liberalism in Maine that simply couldn’t organize around a single candidate in 2010.

I’ve touched on the arrogant assumptive of this group of people before, but now that the same arguments are being preemptively made in the event that independent Angus King’s implosion continues and Republican Charlie Summers wins, it is time to revisit them.

Let’s start with the obvious: If there was a liberal-progressive consensus of more than 60 percent of Maine voters, trust me, they would rally around a single progressive candidate.

People are withdrawing their support from King simply because they no longer find him an appealing candidate. But the reason they no longer find him an appealing candidate is really the important thing.

Let’s take a look at that 2010 gubernatorial race because it is an instructive example. The left has tried repeatedly to tell us that independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell supporters were the same people; they were just confused and standing on the wrong side of the room when the voting happened.

This ignores a great deal of Cutler’s electoral base. In 2010, both LePage and Cutler spent the entire campaign talking about Maine’s fiscal troubles, the need for top-to-bottom reform, the failure of the Maine Democratic establishment, the need for spending cuts and labor reform, and so on and so forth.

Cutler, while viewed as a Democrat in sheep’s clothing, still did capture a rather healthy proportion of fiscally conservative and socially liberal folks who were fed up with the status quo and wanted something different. LePage captured a very similar group of voters as well.

I wonder, then, why no one talks about the “81 percent” Maine majority that rejected Mitchell and the Democrats and voted for some version of radical change?

Maine is, in reality, a split electorate with several difficult-to-pin-down political philosophies that converge around various candidates for a whole variety of reasons.

You can’t simply bunch up the totals of the candidates who came in second and third place and pretend they are the same group of people.

The Cutler coalition was made up of change Democrats, some libertarians, some moderates and even a few Republicans. The LePage coalition was made up of conservatives, some libertarians, some change-minded moderates and even some fed-up Democrats. The Mitchell coalition was made up of whatever was left.

This year, the left is going to have to come to grips with the fact that many of the people who were (and in some instances still are) supporting King are relatively conservative-minded folks who may be moderate on some social issues but actually believe King’s insistence that he is a fiscal conservative.

Others who support King are true centrists and moderates who like his gentle touch and affable nature. Others still are Democrats who see him as the best, most electable option in this cycle.

In short, a haphazard, often contradictory group of people that very often have little in common.

Any group of people voting for any person is doing so because of the unique characteristics of that person, and their supporters are made up of a whole host of people.

Whoever ends up winning the race is the winner because they were able to capture the most support, and their opponents were not able to convince people that they were better. When you have three viable candidates (well, more like two and a half), that means that the various political groups in the state will gravitate toward that candidate they like the most.

But the lower, so called “split-vote” total of the winner, is not an indication of opposition or unhappiness. Rather, it is a symptom of simply having a variety of choices. It is time to stop pretending otherwise.

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. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.