Trump is using LePage’s winning playbook

Donald Trump and Gov. Paul LePage in Portland in March – Joel Page | Reuters

The Boston Globe/Colby College/Survey USA poll released earlier this week with Donald Trump winning by a 10-point margin in Maine’s Second Congressional District is probably a bit of an outlier, but it isn’t an impossible scenario.

Other recent surveys have shown the race here close (much closer than in traditional top-tier swing states like Ohio and Florida) and with Trump performing better than other recent Republican presidential candidates in the Pine Tree State despite his ongoing national electoral disadvantages.

A Beacon/MPRC poll released last month, during a period where Hillary Clinton had even more of a national lead, showed Trump and Clinton in a statistical dead heat in a head-to-head contest.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Maine’s sprawling second CD could represent Trump’s best chance to win an electoral that went to Obama in 2012 (although both Ohio and Iowa now seem to be in contention as well).

Trump’s success and Maine’s strange status are due to a combination of demographics and strategy. The same kind of personality, message, focus and electoral splits that propelled Governor Paul LePage to a second term are now playing out across the country with Trump’s campaign, and it’s not surprising that the effects are being felt most strongly in LePage’s geographic base.

The two candidates have some stylistic similarities, and both have a well-earned reputation for being politically incorrect and a completely unearned reputation among some for “telling it like it is,” but the alignment of their campaigns is actually most obvious on the issue of immigration. Trump’s very first television ad has some strong parallels with the highest profile pro-LePage ad of 2014, aired by the RGA. Both shadow-drenched commercials show a dark vision of foreigners sweeping across the border and falsely accuse their opponents of supporting public assistance and Social Security for undocumented immigrants.

At the time, this was a new tactic in Maine. This kind of blatant anti-immigrant scapegoating in TV ads wasn’t seen much anywhere, even in southern border states, much less in a state on the northern border. Obviously, times have changed, and this kid of anti-immigrant sentiment that plays on racial animus and resentment has been proven to work well to animate a conservative base across the country.

According to some fascinating studies of Trump voters, it actually works best among white voters without a college education living in areas without as much contact with immigrants and people of color.

While this part of LePage’s strategy (on steroids and writ national) has worked for Trump in the primaries and as a base motivator, some other elements of Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial race would have to fall into place for Trump to win a presidential election (setting aside for a moment how Clinton’s strategy may be different from Rep. Mike Michaud’s in 2014).

The first is the influence of third-party candidates. While Eliot Cutler’s vote totals alone may not have ensured LePage another four years in the Blaine House (while his total was larger than the margin between the two major-party candidates, polls show a significant portion of Cutler voters might have otherwise gone to LePage), his presence in the race shifted the conversation away from LePage’s more unpopular policy positions and personal failings towards attacks on Michaud and some of the same kind of false equivalencies we’re now seeing in media coverage of the presidential race. The Cutler/Michaud shadow primary helped ensure the record of the incumbent governor received much less attention than it should have.

If third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein continue to garner significant support, they could play a similar role, muddying the waters of what’s really a one-on-one contest and drawing enough votes to allow Trump to win with LePage-like numbers.

The second is if Trump can follow LePage’s duct-tape strategy.

After a string of off-color and racist statements in 2013, LePage declared that “I promised my staff: Now till Election Day, when I want to say something that is off-color, I’m going to tape my mouth shut.”

He mostly succeeded in toning things down through the election (although he has, of course, unleashed himself afterwards) and made comparatively few major gaffes to distract from the campaign. If not completely reshaping his persona in voters minds, it at least allowed them to focus on other aspects of the campaign, to his benefit.

Trump is apparently attempting something similar, sticking more to teleprompters and reining in his offensive tweets. The new focus, often attributed to the influence of new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, has been successful in shifting some of the media coverage, with news outlets often content not to look past the latest news cycle and to grade the candidate on a curve. The Republican nominee has far less time to implement this kind of strategic shift than LePage did, however, and doesn’t seem to be quite as good at it.

The national electorate is very different from Maine’s, but whether it’s through these kinds of strategies or due to new dynamics that emerge in the race over the next two months, it is eminently possible for Trump to win at least one vote in Maine and there’s a significant chance he could win the presidency. For Mainers, this isn’t a new story. For many progressives, it’s a recurring nightmare.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.