Skip to content

As Portland (Maine) Goes, So Goes … the Nation?

For decades, Portland, Maine, the state’s largest city (population 66,000), has been more liberal and more Democratic than the rest of the Pine Tree State. But it wasn’t always the magnet for foodies or the home of upscale boutiques that attract a more affluent crowd.

While Maine elected a Republican governor and GOP majorities in the legislature in 2010, that political “wave” outcome is misleading. Democrats won the legislature back in 2012, and Republicans will have trouble holding the governorship in 2014.

If the state of Maine has been sliding toward the Democrats in most statewide elections over the past four or five decades, Portland has been leading the state’s move to the left.

In 1972, when Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was drawing only 38.5 percent of the vote in Maine, he was doing somewhat better in Portland. McGovern lost the city to Richard Nixon but drew a respectable 47.6 percent of the vote — 9.1 points better than his statewide showing.

In contrast, McGovern carried the city of Lewiston (population 36,000) easily, with 62.2 percent of the vote. Maine’s second-largest city has had a strong Catholic, French Canadian flavor for decades, and its blue-collar economy started going downhill in the middle of the last century, when textile mills left the Northeast for the South.

Lewiston was reliably Democratic, and it didn’t echo the Nixon landslide in 1972. McGovern ran 23.7 points better in Lewiston than he did statewide.

By 2000, Portland and Lewiston had started to show that things were changing.

While Al Gore carried Maine by 5.1 points (49.1 percent to 44 percent) and had decisive wins in both Portland and Lewiston, the Democratic presidential nominee drew 63.4 percent in Portland but a smaller 61.1 percent in Lewiston.

Eight years later, Democrat Barack Obama drew 57.7 percent in Maine, carrying the state by more than 17 points. Again, he carried both Portland and Lewiston, though suddenly his performance in the two cities was reversed from how they behaved in 1972.

Obama drew 76.9 percent in increasingly yuppified Portland — more than 19 points better than his statewide showing — but 62.8 percent in Lewiston.

Finally, last year, the president’s showing dropped a little more than 2 points statewide from his first run, carrying Maine with 55.4 percent. His showing in Portland dropped about 1 point (to 75.7 percent), while his performance in Lewiston dropped 3.6 points, to 59.2 percent.

So, while Obama performed 20.3 points better in Portland than he did statewide, he did just 3.8 points better in Lewiston than he did statewide.

Portland and Lewiston both continue to look quite Democratic, but the trend lines are clear. Increasingly gentrified Portland is attracting more liberal voters, while Lewiston has come to more closely resemble the statewide political outlook.

Last year’s citizen initiative on same-sex marriage offers more evidence of the trend.

Statewide, Maine voters narrowly passed the ballot measure allowing the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, 51.5 percent to 46.2 percent. But the measure lost in Lewiston, getting only 46 percent of the vote, at the same time that it was winning in Portland with a landslide 74.8 percent of the vote.

Not every city in Maine has evolved over the past 40 years. Bangor, the state’s third-largest city (population 33,000), has remained remarkably consistent in its politics relative to the state as a whole.

Like the state, Bangor went for Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1980. Still mirroring the state, Gore squeezed out a narrow win in the city in 2000, and Obama won the city comfortably in 2008 and 2012.

Bangor performed 1.5 points more Democratic than the state in the 1972 race, 1 point more Democratic in 1980, 2 points more Democratic in 2000, 1.4 points more Democratic in 2008 and 2.2 points more Democratic in 2012. (The same-sex marriage measure carried in Bangor with 56.5 percent of the vote.)

In other words, while Bangor mirrored the state’s partisan movement, Portland, the state’s largest city, clearly has led Maine’s transformation from a swing state in the 1970s to a largely Democratic state now.

That’s not to say that Portland dictates what Maine will do, of course. In 2008, former Portland mayor (and then-1st District congressman) Tom Allen easily won the city, 77 percent to 21 percent, in his challenge to Republican Sen. Susan Collins — but Collins swept to a landslide 61 percent to 39 percent statewide victory. She won all 16 of the state’s counties, including Cumberland, which includes Portland.

Of course, the Republican grew up in Caribou, Maine, which is more than twice as far from Portland as Portland is from Boston, so Portland voters had an added incentive to support their hometown hopeful.

But the fact that Portland doesn’t always dictate the state’s political result is no reason to ignore the city’s political evolution. The gentrification that has developed in Portland is appearing elsewhere around the country, and for now at least, the kinds of voters who value Portland’s changing values and lifestyle seem more inclined to support Democratic candidates than Republicans. That’s something for both parties to consider, not just in Maine but nationally.