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Trump Years Make Maine’s Partisan Divide the Widest in a Decade

by | Oct 31, 2019

Maine is more politically divided today than it’s been since Barack Obama won the White House over a decade ago.

The latest voter registration numbers from the Maine Secretary of State’s office reveal that both Democrats and Republicans have gained shares of the electorate since Donald Trump took power in early 2017. Although there are still more voters in Maine who don’t belong to any political party than registered Republicans or Democrats, Maine’s pool of independent voters is shrinking as more people formally pick a side.

Following the election of our first black president, Maine got a lot redder, with Republicans gaining more party members than Democrats did in every county save Knox (Knox County includes the city of Rockland, towns such as Camden and Rockport, and the island communities of North Haven and Vinalhaven). After Trump became president, the ranks of both parties swelled in roughly equal measure.

That statewide divide plays out at the local level, too. Two years after Trump’s victory, about 45 percent of Mainers lived in communities where the partisan divide widened, meaning both Democrats and Republicans gained shares of the electorate. Two years after Obama’s first win, that was the case for 35 percent of Maine voters.

The graph below allows you to look at party registration numbers by county, by state legislative district, and at the municipal level.

In state legislative districts, the political divide is even starker. This suggests Maine’s Legislature will continue to become more deeply divided along partisan lines, which affects how people view the same facts. After Obama took office in 2008, 96 of the 151 Maine House districts became redder; after Trump won, the split couldn’t have been more even, with 59 districts getting bluer and 58 getting redder.

At the municipal level, Democrats gained on Republicans in more populous areas, winning a greater share of registered voters in cities and large towns. However, the GOP gained voters in a greater number of communities statewide (263 of them) than the Dems did (170).

After Trump, voters come off the sidelines

Backlash against a newly elected president’s party is typical, but the trends in voter registration show something different is happening in post-Trump Maine, where voters in many parts of the state are affirming their allegiance to the GOP.

The trends don’t predict who’s going to win an election; they just indicate the electorate’s affinity for one party or another. A voter may register with a party for a variety of reasons. This analysis views that decision simply as a marker of party identification, a person deciding, “I am a Democratic/Republican/Vermin Supreme voter.”

By sheer numbers, Democrats continue to wield a hefty statewide registration advantage, an edge that helped Donkey Party politicians win the governorship, majority control in the Legislature, and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2018. But Maine still has more independents than party members, and at the local level, the picture of the state’s partisan leanings is more complex. (For a great analysis of the influence of independent and unenrolled voters, check out “The Moderate Middle is a Myth,” from FiveThirtyEight.)

The number of unenrolled voters dropped off dramatically from 2016 to 2018. Registration in third parties — Greens and Libertarians — was at a standstill in Maine during that same period.

A town divided

Perhaps you’ve seen indications of increased partisanship in your community: more blue bumper stickers and red hats, lawn signs of every color sprouting like weeds. Gorham and Auburn are among the largest communities where both Democrats and Republicans have gained big shares of voters since 2016.

At the county level, the post-Trump trend fits a stereotype: every coastal county except Washington got bluer, as did Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ home turf, Franklin County. Eight other counties got redder.

Two years after Obama took power, even relatively liberal Cumberland and York counties got redder. Cumberland and York, Maine’s most populous counties, both got bluer by 2018, but they also got more divided. In the western parts of those counties — places like Standish, Sanford and Gorham — both parties drew more voters into their camps in roughly equal numbers.

The next three most-populous counties in the state, Androscoggin, Kennebec and Penobscot, all got redder from 2016 to 2018. But at the local level, it’s harder to predict which way the partisan winds are blowing. For example, the Trumpiest community in the state, Magalloway Plantation, actually became less partisan. In 2016, 44 percent of the Oxford County territory’s 29 voters registered Republican. In 2018, that dropped to 36 percent, and independent voters became the majority.

Explore the local vote shares gained and lost by party in the visualization below. Click a bar or line representing a particular party to change the perspective of the map. For instance, clicking a Green Party data point will change the map to show local Green Party gains and losses.

The trends can be viewed for different geographic boundaries, including Maine Senate and House Districts, counties and congressional districts.

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