November 04, 2016

As Maine goes, so goes: (a) the nation (b) Vermont . . .

In the November 1936 presidential election, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected for a second term in a landslide victory over his Republican opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.

Roosevelt received more than 60% of the vote and won in all but two states – Maine and Vermont.

On November 4, 1936, the day after the election, Roosevelt’s campaign manager James A. Farley gave reporters what would now be called a good sound bite.

“As Maine goes, so goes Vermont,” he quipped.

Farley’s witty remark soon became a famous humorous political quotation.

It was especially funny to political observers because it’s a take-off on the older saying: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

What’s the origin of that venerable political proverb?

It is sometimes claimed to be based on the fact that Maine was the first state to enact a law prohibiting alcohol in 1851.

For example, an article published in the Boston Globe in 2000 said it “was coined at the peak of the state’s 19th-century temperance movement, in an era when New England shaped national opinion on fundamental issues from slavery to child labor to women's suffrage.”

But that temperance theory is wrong.

Nor is the saying based on Mainers’ record on votes for president.

In fact, historically, Mainers have voted for a higher percentage of losing presidential candidates than many other states.

The saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” primarily stems from the fact that Maine once held its state elections for Governor, U.S. Senators and Congressmen and other non-presidential offices in September – two months before other states.

The outcome of this unique early election was seen as an indication of how the political winds were blowing in general for the Democrat and Republican parties.

Maine’s September election, on the second Monday of the month, was created in its constitution in 1820, when it split from Massachusetts to became a separate state.

In presidential election years, Mainers also went back to the polls in November to vote on the presidential race.

In 1957, Maine changed its election law and, in 1960, started holding all general elections on the same November election dates as other states.

But even though Maine’s old September election tradition is gone, the saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” has lived on – as has James Farley’s update, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

In 1972, some observers thought Maine gave a different sign of things to come in politics when it passed a law making it the first state to allow its electoral vote to be split. Under that law, the winner of each congressional district gets one electoral vote, and the winner of the statewide vote gets the state's remaining two electoral votes.

Supporters of that law touted it as a more democratic alternative to the traditional system of having all of a state’s electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes statewide.

As it turned out, the nation didn’t go that way. In 1996, Nebraska became the only other state to pass a similar law, though I don’t think it led anyone to start saying: “As Maine goes so goes Nebraska.”

Since Maine has only four electoral votes, it’s not usually a key swing state in presidential elections. However, as I write this paragraph, some political pundits were speculating that the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may be so close that even one of Maine's electoral votes could determine the winner. I may update this post after the November 8th election. In the meantime, we'll all continue to be, er, kept in suspense about that.

As it turned out, Donald Trump did get one electoral vote from Maine. It was the first time since the 1972 law was passed that the state’s electoral votes actually were split between two candidates. However, it wasn’t a deciding factor in the election. Trump would have
won handily without it. Hillary Clinton won Maine’s other three electoral votes, since the majority of Mainers voted for her. So did the majority of voters in Vermont, suggesting that James Farley’s quip “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont” remains truer than the earlier saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

NOTE: If you’d like to read more about the 1936 election, FDR and James Farley, I recommend the book Mr. Democrat: Jim Farley, the New Deal and the Making of Modern American Politics.

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