The right lessons from the 2018 election
Want to hear an interesting fact about the 2018 election?
Shawn Moody received the fourth-most votes for governor in the nearly 200 years of Maine history.
Obviously, one of the people who received more votes than he did was Janet Mills, the woman who defeated him in that contest. The other two were Paul LePage in 2014, who until two weeks ago held the title for most votes in gubernatorial history, and Joe Brennan in 1982.
Now, I grant you that such a proclamation can be somewhat misleading, given rising populations that naturally advantage more recent candidates over those of the past. Yet Maine’s population doesn’t grow all that quickly, and the top 10 contains three candidates from the ‘90s and one from the ’60s, so I think there are several lessons to draw from Moody’s performance.
Moody didn’t underperform. In fact, he performed extremely well, better than any Republican candidate in the state’s history, save LePage.
The problem in this election was that he performed well for a gubernatorial election cycle. Mills and the Democrats, on the other hand, performed well for a presidential election cycle.
By that I mean that the voter registration, persuasion and turnout operation engineered by the Democrats was exceptional, if held up to the benchmarks of presidential elections, where more people vote. Moody performed well against the traditional benchmarks of gubernatorial midterm years.
Democrats significantly expanded their voting base in the time since the last gubernatorial election in 2014. That year, they held a 44,836-person edge in voter registration over Republicans. Today, that same margin is 58,368, meaning that the Democrats now have 13,532 more voters to draw upon than they did four years ago.
Those new Democrats combined with incredibly high voter turnout among the party in general to produce explosive results, particularly in southern Maine.
Mills won the election by just over 46,800 voters. In Cumberland County alone her margin was more than 40,500, and in 15 communities there that gave Mills the highest number of raw net votes over Moody, her performance accounted for a margin 20,823 higher than Mike Michaud enjoyed over LePage in 2014.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Cumberland County is the only reason the Democrats won. They overperformed everywhere.
In 2014, for instance, LePage beat Michaud by a margin of 53.41 percent to 39.61 percent in the 2nd Congressional District, which was represented by Michaud at the time. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 51 percent to 41 percent there.
In 2018, Moody did win the 2nd District, but only 48.46 percent to 44.83 percent, about 10 points worse than LePage performed in 2014.
And again, that wasn’t because Moody’s campaign didn’t turn out the vote for him at an impressive clip, it is because the Democrats were uniquely motivated, and turned out at a rather historic pace, overwhelming his campaign.
What if this election was fought in a more standard year, rather than a year that saw overly excited Democratic passions in Maine? Could Moody have won? Would Mills — a rather uninspiring candidate, if we are being honest — have been able to independently turn out enough votes to beat him?
We will never know, of course, but my instincts tell me that It would have been a very close election that could have gone in either direction.
Which is ultimately just a very long way of giving a bit of advice to Democrats. Enjoy your win, certainly. You did your job and did it well. But, just like the Republicans of 2010 both here in Maine and nationally, be careful to not buy too much of your own hype and learn the wrong lessons of the election.
The pendulum swings, and it seems to swing every couple years. So buckle up and get ready for 2020, because the playing field isn’t going to look nearly so pleasant.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.