With polls tightening across the country, the 2016 presidential race could be decided by a single congressional district in Maine, under several unlikely but still-plausible scenarios.
The Pine Tree State is one of two that splits its votes in the Electoral College. The statewide winner gets two, and one vote goes to the winner of each congressional district. Since Maine adopted the system for the 1972 election, the districts have never split.
“It could matter. It absolutely could matter.”
This year could be different, however. Two polls this month show Republican Donald Trump trailing statewide but winning the 2nd Congressional District, which covers most of the state outside of Portland and its surrounding communities.
In an extremely close election, the electoral vote awarded by that district could put Trump over the top.
“It could matter,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “It absolutely could matter.”
Consider several possible outcomes. If Trump wins all of the states that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won and flipped Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa, winning the 2nd District in Maine would allow him to avoid an Electoral College tie and win with 270 — the bare minimum needed. That would be the same result if Trump lost Nevada and New Hampshire but turned Wisconsin instead.
Under either of the scenarios, the outcome could fall back into a tie if Democrat Hillary Clinton were to win the 2nd Congressional District in Nebraska, as President Obama did in 2008. Nebraska is the only other state that does not award all of its electoral votes to the statewide winner. A 269-269 tie would throw the race to the House of Representatives.
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Political experts said the 2nd District in Maine has been a swing district and is filled with the kinds of voters that have made up Trump’s base — white, rural, working-class residents who have struggled economically. Paper mills that once dotted the region largely have closed or moved overseas.
Obama won the district by 12 points in 2008 and 9 points in 2012. But there are signs the district has been edging more conservative. Republican Bruce Poliquin won a House race there in 2014. And a Colby College poll this week registered strong support for Maine’s polarizing Republican governor, Paul LePage, whose shoot-from-the-hip style reminds some observers of Trump.
Brewer said a Trump victory in the district seems likely.
[lz_table title=”Maine’s Swing District” source=”RealClearPolitcs”]2nd Congressional District Polls
“There is a strong possibility at this point. This isn’t necessarily a new, Trump-only phenomenon,” he said. “It’s not out of the question that any Republican could win. I think Trump, maybe, has a better chance than other Republican nominees, given his appeal to white, rural voters. And that district as a lot of them.”
Dan Shea, director of Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, said the poll his team conducted points to a probable Trump win in the district.
“It’s a 10-point spread up there, which is pretty hefty, and there are not a lot of undecideds,” he said.
Shea said the district has become more conservative as the state turns away from a history of moderation and pragmatism.
“What we’ve become in Maine really is bimodal,” he said. “Passions are running deep on both sides.”
Shea said there has been no great population shift or demographic change to explain why the 2nd District suddenly is in play. He said it has become difficult to make a living in many parts of northern Maine, which increased frustration and anxiety.
“Change of place or change of heart? I think it’s change of heart,” he said. “That helps explain Paul LePage. And it helps explain Donald Trump.”