October 2, 2012

'Two Maines' on display in latest political poll

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In southern and coastal Maine, there's no doubt where voters stand: They overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama and his signature health care reform law, and they want same sex marriage to be legal in the state by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

It's a different story in the rest of the state.

Obama is leading Republican Mitt Romney in the north and west, too, but not by much. Those voters have a poor opinion of the health reform law and say they are just about evenly divided on the idea of allowing gay couples to marry.

The political divide between Maine's two congressional districts is clearly revealed in these and other results of a statewide Critical Insights poll conducted in mid September for the Portland Press Herald. The south and coast are far more liberal than the north, especially on social issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, the poll said.

At the same time, new U.S. Census Bureau data reveals the underlying economic and social differences between the two regions -- including higher incomes in the south and higher poverty in the north and west.

Economists and others first noted the "two Maines" phenomenon decades ago, but the divide now appears to be more acute than ever, according to Richard Barringer, a research professor emeritus at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland who began warning about the diverging economies in the 1980s.

"The politics of the two districts have now grown apart," Barringer said Monday.

Maine's 1st Congressional District includes the more urban south and a sliver of the state that extends up the coast. The 2nd District includes the vast and mostly rural central, northern and western region of the state. While the two districts have nearly identical populations -- about 650,000 people each -- the 2nd District covers about 80 percent of the state's land mass.

The two districts clearly have some things in common. Voters in both say they are struggling financially and deeply worried about the lack of jobs and the weak economy, for example.

Politically speaking, however, Maine's 1st District looks much like Massachusetts or New York, according to the poll. Maine's 2nd District looks much like the swing states of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania or Ohio.

Important divide

The divide has become an important factor in Maine elections, and it could be again in November.

In 2009, it was strong opposition in the rural counties of the 2nd District that overturned Maine's first law allowing same sex marriage. And in 2010, it was the support of voters of the 2nd District that put Gov. Paul LePage in the Blaine House and a Republican majority in the Legislature.

The divide will be closely watched next month when Maine voters decide whether to approve a new same sex marriage proposal. And some political observers say the political gap could make history this November, with Maine's two congressional districts possibly backing two different presidential candidates and splitting the state's electoral votes.

The notion of two Maines has been a politically sensitive subject since Barringer and others started talking about it in the 1980s. Politicians publicly dismiss the idea as divisive, although at the same time emphasizing issues such as gun control in southern Maine and the Second Amendment in northern Maine.

"Politicians are very sensitive in this state not to make too much of this two Maines thing," said Kenneth Palmer, political science professor emeritus at the University of Maine. "(Maine) has got a distinctive history and a distictive culture and I think politicians want to retain that. ... We don't have a long tradition of regional differences and regional conflict."

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