What on Earth Happened in 2016, Part 3 – Maine Presidential Election and Ballot Referendums

Maine was a bit off the radar in the run-up to the 2016 elections – despite it being one of only two states that split their electoral votes by congressional district, and despite polls showing that the previously Democratic 2nd District could go to Trump, it was mostly ignored by political analysts in favor of larger states. But perhaps it should not have been ignored, as it went to Hillary Clinton by a margin of only two percent, closer than other swing states like Ohio and North Carolina. The 1st district, as expected, voted for Clinton in a landslide, while the 2nd district was not immune from the massive swing toward Trump of working-class white voters nationwide, and swung heavily to support him.

But what other patterns can we see in the election results? Which areas in the state, if any, swung toward Clinton? Maine also voted on five different ballot referendums in 2016 – what happened with them, and how do their results compare to those of the presidential election? For answers to those questions, plus more analysis and lots of maps, read on.

Presidential Election


The presidential election results show the classic Maine pattern of a blue coastline up to Bar Harbor, and then Republican inland towns. The above map does make it look like there are fewer blue inland towns than there usually are in presidential elections, though. Let’s take a look at how this map compares to the 2012 election.


Well, there it is. Trump outperformed Romney almost everywhere in inland Maine, and in particular the working-class mill towns that had previously been Democratic bastions – places like Rumford, Mexico, Jay, Skowhegan, Millinocket, and the St. John Valley. The same pattern was seen even in the larger working-class towns; places like Auburn, Lewiston, Sanford, and Biddeford. The Augusta and Bangor areas swung only slightly toward Trump – these areas have a higher proportion of educated voters than most of inland Maine, however they still have large white working-class populations. The coast was a mixed bag – overall it swung slightly toward Hillary, but there were several coastal towns that still swung toward Trump. The swings toward Hillary among coastal small towns were largely concentrated in artsy, touristy places such as Bar Harbor, Camden, Newcastle, and Kennebunkport.

The towns with the largest swings toward Hillary were all in the Portland suburbs. Most of the coastal, upper-middle-class suburban towns, such as Scarborough and Freeport, swung toward her. However, the largest swings in her favor were in a trio of suburban towns just up the coast from Portland – Falmouth, Cumberland, and Yarmouth. These towns are all very rich, socially liberal, fiscally moderate-to-conservative, and consistently have very high turnout. These characteristics were evident in the results of some of the referendums, as you will see very soon.

Marijuana Referendum

The first referendum on the Maine ballot in 2016, as well as the most high-profile of the five referendums Maine voted on in 2016, was a proposition to legalize recreational marijuana. This referendum turned out to be the closest of the five, with Maine legalizing recreational marijuana by a margin of 0.4 percent.


One interesting thing to notice about this map is that there aren’t as many dark-colored towns on this map as there were on the presidential map. The referendum was very close in a lot of towns. Only three towns with over 1,000 people voted over 60 percent ‘Yes’ – Portland, Kittery, and Orono. This is a common pattern in referendums on the subject of marijuana. It’s not a particularly partisan issue – there are lots of Republicans who are pro-marijuana, and there are also lots of Democrats who are anti-marijuana. This is illustrated very well in my next map, which compares Hillary Clinton’s performance to that of the ‘Yes’ side in the marijuana referendum.


With only a few exceptions, marijuana outperformed Hillary in inland Maine and among Republican towns, mostly by substantial margins. The only places in inland Maine where Hillary outperformed marijuana were the Bangor and Augusta areas (which, remember, were also outliers in the presidential election, as they are more educated and swung only slightly toward Trump as the rest of inland Maine swung heavily toward him), the Waterville area (Waterville is the home of Colby College), and, interestingly, the St. John Valley and central Aroostook County. Aroostook County is a very socially conservative area (it voted heavily against gay marriage in 2012), and it seems to be the only white working-class area in Maine where Trump-flavored conservatism was less powerful than anti-marijuana sentiment. In other white working-class towns such as Rumford and Mexico, marijuana substantially outperformed Hillary.

In many places along the coast, Hillary outperformed marijuana, sometimes by very large margins. There is a noticeable correlation between places where Hillary outperformed Obama, and places where she outperformed marijuana – places like Bar Harbor, Camden, Newcastle, and the Portland suburbs fit both of those characteristics. However, this correlation has less to do with the fact that she outperformed Obama in these towns, and more to do with the fact that they voted heavily Democratic (without considering the swing). Since there are lots of pro-marijuana Republicans and anti-marijuana Democrats, the more Democratic or Republican a town is, the more likely it is, in general, to have a large difference between its partisan election results and its marijuana referendum results.

Income Tax Referendum

Question 2 on the ballot asked Mainers whether they were in favor or opposed to implementing a 3% tax on income over $200,000, to fund public education. This referendum also passed narrowly, by a margin of 0.8 percent, but with a substantially different coalition than any other 2016 referendum.


This map neatly illustrates the major difference between the two types of voters that swung toward Hillary in 2016. One type is the small-town artsy voters, in places like Bar Harbor, Camden, and Newcastle. These voters (there are many such voters in Portland as well) generally voted ‘Yes’ on this referendum. The other type is rich suburbanites, in places like Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, and Scarborough. Those rich voters voted heavily ‘no’ on this referendum (this is visible on the map as the red and brown towns near Portland). These rich suburbanites are not quite economically progressive enough to vote to tax themselves, in contrast to some of Boston’s rich suburbs, which would vote to tax themselves.

The other interesting pattern for this referendum happens inland, in those same working-class towns that were previously Democratic but swung to Trump. Many of them, including Rumford, Mexico, Jay, and the St. John Valley, voted ‘yes’. This goes to show that these towns still have some economic progressivism in them, and Democrats should use that to their advantage if they want to win back voters in these towns.

Background Checks Referendum

Question 3 on the ballot was a proposition to require background checks before gun sales. This was the only one of the five referendums in 2016 that failed, and it failed by a margin of 4 percent. Most polls showed background checks to be very popular, so why did the referendum fail?

Because it was extremely unpopular with rural voters.


The four other referendums all saw a pattern where the ‘Yes’ vote generally outperformed Hillary in rural Maine. This referendum was the glaring exception. The map shows a very stark coast-inland split, and in Maine, if there’s an election with coastal southern Maine on one side and the inland rural areas on the other side, then the inland rural areas will win every time. Pretty much the only inland towns that voted ‘yes’ on background checks were Lewiston and Auburn (the 2nd and 5th largest cities in Maine), Hallowell (a small, ultra-liberal town just south of Augusta), Waterville, Bangor (the 3rd-largest city in Maine), Orono (home to the University of Maine), and Carrabassett Valley, a small town dominated by the Sugarloaf ski resort. Pretty much everywhere else in inland Maine was heavily opposed to background checks.

The only reason why this referendum was as close as it was is due to heavy support from coastal Maine, and coastal southern Maine in particular. Portland voted over 80 percent ‘Yes’, and every coastal or near-coastal town south of Portland (with the exception of Arundel) voted over 60 percent ‘Yes’. That’s how you get a map comparing the background checks referendum to the presidential election that looks like this:


Despite Hillary’s massively underperforming Obama in most of Maine’s rural areas, she still substantially outperformed background checks in most of those same areas (which goes to show just how unpopular background checks were there). The only exceptions were the Lewiston and Bangor areas. But, in coastal southern Maine, a lot of Trump voters voted ‘Yes’ on background checks. This referendum, more than any other election in 2016, shows the culture clash that is such a defining feature of Maine politics, and should serve as a cautionary tale to Democrats that if they continue to pursue gun control, they have quite a bit further to fall in rural Maine.

Minimum Wage Referendum

Question 4 on the ballot was a proposition to increase the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020, and thereafter tie it to the Consumer Price Index. This referendum had the largest margin of victory of the referendums in Maine in 2016, because it managed to unite all of the groups that had supported Barack Obama in 2012.


The Obama coalition in Maine consisted of city-dwellers, Portland suburbanites, touristy coastal towns, and enough working-class white voters. All of these groups voted to raise the minimum wage. Every Portland suburb voted ‘Yes’, even the ones that had voted against the tax on the wealthy. Thus, it seems that many of these wealthy voters are willing to pay their employees more, but not to pay higher taxes themselves. In addition, all of the artsy, touristy towns on the coast, such as Newcastle, Camden, Belfast, Blue Hill, and Bar Harbor, all voted heavily to raise the minimum wage. Inland cities like Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, and Bangor also all voted yes by substantial margins, as did white working-class towns like Rumford, Mexico, Jay, Millinocket, and the entire St. John Valley.

The areas that voted ‘No’ are generally the areas that have been the Republican base in Maine for the past decade.


The above map, a comparison of Hillary’s performance to that of raising the minimum wage, really goes to show how well raising the minimum wage did. The only places in the entire state where Hillary outperformed raising the minimum wage were Portland and its rich suburbs, Camden, Bar Harbor, Orono and Old Town, and Carrabassett Valley. And even in those places, Hillary generally outperformed the minimum wage only by a small margin. By contrast, in almost the entire rest of the state, raising the minimum wage massively outperformed Hillary.

Hmmm, it looks like we’ve found an issue that Democrats could campaign on instead of gun control if they wanted to regain their strength in rural Maine!

Ranked-Choice Voting Referendum

Question 5 on the ballot was a proposal to institute ranked-choice voting (also referred to as instant-runoff voting, or IRV) for Congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative elections in Maine. It passed by a margin of four percent.


You’re probably thinking, haven’t I seen this map before in this article? Well, not quite. At a glance, it may look similar to the maps for some of the other ballot referendums. But there are subtle differences. First of all, unlike Question 1 (marijuana) and Question 3 (background checks), IRV is not a social issue. And unlike Question 2 (taxing the rich) or Question 4 (minimum wage), IRV is not an economic issue. Thus, one thing that should be clear is that, in contrast to the presidential election and several of the referendums, socioeconomic status did not play a role in these results. The white working-class mill towns that I mentioned frequently before voted no differently on this referendum than their neighbors. And the rich Portland suburbs voted no differently than working-class Biddeford or middle-class Saco.

One factor that matters somewhat is partisanship. Nearly all of the towns that consistently vote heavily for Democrats also voted heavily for IRV. This should come as no surprise – after all, the major impetus behind establishing IRV in Maine was to prevent a right-wing Republican like Paul LePage from becoming Governor with only 39 percent of the vote, which happened in 2010. But there aren’t enough partisan Democrats in Maine to form a majority of voters. And as the map below shows, some independents and even some Republicans voted for IRV as well.


In fact, a lot of Trump voters, mostly in inland, rural towns, also voted for IRV. And a smaller number of coastal Hillary voters voted against IRV. Some of the Hillary/anti-IRV votes in coastal towns are probably from voters who voted for Romney in 2012, and thus have no loyalty to the Democratic Party and voted for Hillary simply because they don’t like Trump. But the IRV supporters among inland Trump voters are more interesting. These areas are also where Paul LePage is more popular, which makes the fact that they voted for IRV – a system that would have caused him to lose if it had been implemented in 2010 – even more curious. The most likely explanation for this is that pro-IRV campaigners managed to convince a lot of rural right-leaning independents that IRV would improve the quality of their representation. In addition, the pro-IRV side massively outspent the anti-IRV side, so it’s likely that many non-political voters who didn’t bother to educate themselves on both sides of the IRV debate only heard or saw the pro-IRV side’s arguments.

Stay tuned for my future articles about Massachusetts’ 2016 elections and Maine’s state legislative elections! Spoiler for the latter article: Maine is still the ticket-splitting capital of America.


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