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Global Matters: Overcoming 'post-outburst' syndrome

Opinion

Global Matters: Overcoming 'post-outburst' syndrome

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage let loose the latest in a growing list of angry, intemperate, and thoughtless remarks.

The most recent outburst was extreme in its vulgarity, but otherwise all of a piece with prior offensive remarks the governor has made. He’s done it before and he will do it again.

The sad part is that we, too, have taken up our assigned roles.

Supporters of the governor have praised him for speaking his mind, everyone else has expressed outrage, and the electorate and the media once again find themselves in the throes of “post-outburst syndrome,” which involves, first, consensus among the so-called 61 percent (who voted for someone else) that the governor must be defeated, but then quickly morphs into the familiar “party nominee vs. spoiler” trope.

Who will run for the Democrats? What effect will Eliot Cutler’s likely candidacy have? Why doesn’t Cutler run as a Democrat? Why is he running at all? Why don’t the Democratic Party candidate and Cutler make a pact that if either one is behind by more than 10 percentage points ... ?

This is both tiresome and unhelpful.

Whoever the Democratic nominee may be, and regardless of who runs as an independent candidate or otherwise, there are truths that need to be told and some sacred cows that need to be slaughtered:

• "If your candidate doesn’t win, it’s because he or she didn’t get enough votes." In close elections, members of the major political parties are wont to attribute the defeat of their candidates to the existence of other candidates who somehow siphoned off votes, and not to the fact that their candidate’s message failed to resonate with voters. There are two reasons why this is wrong.

First, there simply is not, in an election involving hundreds of thousands of voters, a one-to-one, either/or correlation between voters who chose a third party or independent candidate and those who opted for a particular candidate from one of the major parties. Voters actually have choices, and it is up to a candidate to convince the voters that he presents the best package of values and abilities.

Second, there are nearly 926,000 registered voters in Maine, or at least there were during the 2012 presidential election. In that election, 706,000 persons voted, for a turnout of 76 percent.

In other words, even in a presidential election year, in which voter turnout is typically high, some 219,000 registered voters chose not to vote at all. Barack Obama received roughly 398,000 votes to Mitt Romney’s 290,000.

If 49 percent of the 219,000 Mainers who chose not to vote cast their ballots for Romney, he might well have won the state.

Similarly, in the 2010 gubernatorial election, a total of nearly 990,000 Maine voters were registered, and more than 565,000 of them cast ballots for LePage, Cutler, Elizabeth Mitchell, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott. LePage received almost 217,000 votes, Cutler more than 206,000 votes, and Mitchell 108,000.

Because the top two candidates were so close, many attribute LePage’s election to the votes cast for Cutler. If Cutler hadn’t run, or if he had withdrawn and thrown his support to Mitchell, the narrative goes, Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, would have won.

But this ignores the fact that more than 40 percent of registered voters, some 424,000 people, chose not to vote for any candidate, which brings us to another inconvenient truth. If 30 percent of those who chose not to vote instead had cast their ballots for Mitchell, the results might have been quite different, which brings us to another inconvenient truth:

• "If your candidate didn’t get enough votes, it’s because he (or she) didn’t sufficiently motivate voters." When 400,000 voters choose not to cast a ballot at all, let alone vote for a particular candidate, it speaks volumes. In fact, it screams that the candidates’ messages did not resonate with voters.

Think of what might have happened – for any of LePage’s opponents in 2010 – if even half of those who stayed at home had chosen to vote for any of his opponents.

The outcome of the 2010 election, or the blame, if that’s the right word, rests with voters who stayed home, activists who failed to motivate them, and candidates whose messages failed to inspire. It’s easy, but it’s wrong, to succumb to the false math that says if one candidate hadn’t run, another would have won.

The blame game is old and unbecoming, whether in the Statehouse or on the campaign trail, and it won’t change a thing.

Overcoming “post-outburst syndrome” requires those who want something better to do something better, like working harder and smarter to produce the best and most inspiring candidates our state can offer.