Down East 2013 ©
With the announcement that the campaign for equal marriage in Maine has gathered enough signatures to put a question on marriage back on the ballot this November, and the announcement yesterday that the clean energy initiative has failed to qualify for 2012, we now have a better idea of how the ballot will look for the general election this year.
At the top of the ticket will be the Presidential race, in which it looks likely that President Obama will be facing Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee (especially after last night’s results in Florida). With Romney’s New England roots, he may choose to invest some resources in Maine in an attempt to pick up what is sometimes considered a swing electoral vote in the Second Congressional District.
Senator Snowe will also almost certainly be on the ballot for re-election as neither of her tea-party opponents seem to be gaining much steam in their primary challenges. Hotline recently named her one of the luckiest candidates in the country  for managing to avoid a strong challenge from the right.
Assuming her luck holds, in the general Snowe will likely be facing a stronger Democratic challenger than she has had in recent cycles, as several current and former Democratic officeholders have announced that they will compete in a primary to seek the seat.
While no challenger has yet emerged against Rep. Pingree in the First District congressional race, Rep. Mike Michaud in the Second will be facing a strong challenge from current Maine Senate President Kevin Raye. Raye came close the last time he faced Michaud for the seat and will likely have the resources necessary to make the race interesting.
Some of the most important contests will occur on the local level as Democrats vie to take back one or both houses of the State Legislature. The House, in particular, is very closely divided. If they succeed, they’ll be able to place a major roadblock in the path of Governor LePage’s agenda for the second half of his term. Up until now, with his party controlling both chambers, he’s had a great deal of leeway in pursuing his policy goals.
With so many real contests on the ballot, one important question for 2012 is whether and how the statewide equal marriage referendum might affect turnout in the election. In 2009, for instance, the conventional wisdom is that more socially conservative and religious voters came to the polls to vote down marriage rights than might have ordinarily shown up for an off-year referendum election.
A deeper look at those results, other elections in Maine and an examination of studies from across the country, however, seems to indicate that there won’t be much of an effect one way or another on other ballot lines.
In 2009, at the same time that marriage rights were voted down, Mainers also strongly rejected conservative proposals like TABOR and the excise tax repeal, showing that voters activated by a marriage referendum can’t necessarily be relied on as ideological or partisan actors.
In the 2008 presidential election many states saw new turnout records, in part due to a highly engaging campaign, especially among younger voters. In Maine however, while the state still achieved one of the highest voter participation rates in the country, it was actually slightly less than in 2004 . In fact, the turnout rate for presidential elections in Maine has remained relatively steady over time. This seems to indicate that the civic culture in Maine and strong voting rights laws (like same-day registration) already contribute to near-universal participation among those with any propensity at all to vote. In other words, those who might have been activated on either side of an equal marriage referendum in an off-year will likely be headed to the polls regardless during a presidential election.
A study conducted in 2004 by Professor Alan Abramowitz at UCLA provides further evidence indicating that the referendum question will likely have little effect on turnout in other races. In 2004, Republican activists successfully placed referendums on gay rights and marriage on the ballot in several key states in the hope that they would drive conservative turnout for candidate elections. Abramowitz found that even in the more anti-equal marriage political environment of 2004, the ballot questions failed to have this effect. He writes:
An examination of turnout data from the states suggests, however, that the strategy of using gay marriage referenda to increase turnout was ineffective. In the 11 states with gay marriage referenda on the ballot, turnout of eligible voters increased by an average of 5.1 percentage points, from 55.9 percent in 2000 to 61.0 percent in 2004. In the rest of the country, turnout increased by an average of 4.4 percentage points, from 57.3 percent in 2000 to 61.7 percent in 2004. Moreover, a multiple regression analysis of turnout in the states in 2004 shows that the presence of gay marriage referenda on the ballot had no impact on turnout. Based on the results summarized in Table 1, the strongest predictor of turnout in 2004 was turnout in 2000. In addition, 12 swing states—the states that were heavily contested by both presidential candidates until the end of the campaign—saw their turnouts increase by a statistically significant 3.7 points beyond what was predicted based on their turnout levels in 2000, and nine states with hotly contested Senate races saw a more modest increase in turnout of just over one percentage point. However, turnout in states with gay marriage referenda on the ballot was no higher than expected.
Other, related studies have found similar results.
All this seems to indicate that, in a presidential year, the equal marriage question won’t have much of an effect on other races, either by activating younger, more progressive voters who might be in favor of marriage rights, or older, more socially conservative voters that might be against them.
Rather than changing the turnout profile, the more likely effect of the referendum will be to make the issue of equal marriage more visible during the election and more of a part of the debate that occurs among candidates in 2012 campaigns.