Short Relief: Portland media haze masks Maine election reality

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I was among those surprised by the Nov. 4 election results.

The conventional wisdom made sense to me. I expected it to be close. I thought that the most likely outcome was a narrow Mike Michaud victory. That Gov. Paul LePage had a hard ceiling of around 38 percent, or about what he received in 2010.

And that his chances of re-election depended on Eliot Cutler attracting 15-20 percent, since of 15 polls taken during the 12 months before September, Cutler polled more than 15 percent in all but three. Ten showed Michaud winning, four showed LePage winning, and one showed a tie.

But then, I live in Portland.

On the daily newspaper’s news pages, on the opinion pages, and on the airwaves, coverage of the governor, his people and his policies was relentlessly negative. It reached a milestone of sorts with a June newspaper column that diagnosed the governor as a political paranoid. (It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.)

I thought that the governor would be lucky to hold on to the 217,000 or so votes that he received in 2010. Winning more seemed inconceivable.

Even so, all along, I heard whispers that people supported the governor, but couldn’t admit it for fear of being vilified. That they thought that he was doing things that needed to be done. I also heard that Michaud supporters were brow-beating Cutler supporters behind the scenes.

It wasn’t until the last month and a half of the campaign that polls started favoring LePage. In addition to winning the statewide school mock election, four of six polls showed him ahead. On Election Day, LePage bettered his 2010 performance by 10 percentage points. He won 48.4 percent of the vote; Michaud got 43.1 percent, and Cutler 8.4 percent.

Disappointed Michaud supporters explain the result as the product of selfish, stupid, ignorant, self-loathing, uninformed, gullible, fearful voters. As well as social pressure and get-out-the-vote mailers.

I think that there were several factors at work. President Obama’s approval ratings were low. Maine was part of a national, mid-term swing back to the right.

The governor was the better, more authentic candidate. He offered better policies. He ran a better, more positive campaign. He was helped by having Sen. Susan Collins and the referendum to ban bear-baiting on the ballot. The October Ebola surprise didn’t hurt, either.

The other factor was the Portland-based media. It could not have been more committed to LePage’s defeat. And it did not succeed. Except maybe in Portland. But then, Portland is usually upside-down. It regularly gives about 70 percent support to whoever has run against Collins or former Sen. Olympia Snowe. Michaud carried Portland, 69 percent to LePage’s 22 percent. But statewide, the Portland media’s influence, if it had any, was inverse.

Maybe it is a one-candidate, one-election anomaly. It’s hard to say because I cannot think of any other election or candidate where the bias was as pronounced. But that is the point. The local Portland media’s bias against the governor was so extreme that it backfired.

Consider the debates. The media spent almost four years portraying the governor as an incoherent, crass, offensive bully who was afraid to debate his competitors. It wasn’t hard to exceed those expectations. The governor made his points. He touted his accomplishments. He defended himself against some of the claims made against him, and he humanized himself in the process.

Consider the issue of welfare reform. Maine is a small place where word travels. Landlords know when their Section 8 tenants own motorcycles, recreational vehicles and watercraft. Neighbors know when the people next door, who receive assistance, don’t work and own bigger flat-screen TVs than they do. Cashiers know when people are using their EBT cards to buy alcohol and cigarettes. Mainers know when people from away move here because the benefits are more generous than elsewhere. They figured out that the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t become overnight, on LePage’s watch, an agency that employs 3,400 people, spends $3 billion , and lacks rigorous systems.

And it offends their sense of propriety.

So when the Portland media repeatedly reported and opined that there was nothing wrong with the system, that we needed to expand the system, that we couldn’t afford not to, that the governor was an ogre for refusing to, eventually the Portland media lost credibility and provoked a backlash.

It explains, in part, the governor’s five-point margin of victory and 10-point increase in support from 2010 to 2014.

Sidebar Elements

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.