Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to email@example.com.
Just as Mainers finish up the job of electing a governor, two U.S. representatives and a whole host of state legislators in this year’s midterm elections, this week’s question asks why, for decades, Maine was thought to be the most accurate predictor of who might win in presidential elections.
Where does the saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” come from?
It’s a saying that is still repeated today, even if its accuracy has faded dramatically over the years: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
It refers to politics and the fact that in nearly every election cycle for more than a century between 1820 and 1936, whomever Maine elected as governor that year would predict whom the country would elect as president. If Maine elected a Republican governor, U.S. voters would elect a Republican president, and the same for Democrats.
It happened 22 out of 29 times a president was elected, including in 1838, when Maine elected a Whig, Edward Kent, as governor, and the U.S. then elected fellow Whig William Henry Harrison as president.
And even though Maine voters overwhelmingly chose Republicans over Democrats in gubernatorial races for nearly 100 years between the 1850s and 1950s, if the results were close in Maine it often meant Democrats nationwide would do better, if not take the presidency.
The accuracy with which Maine’s gubernatorial election predicted presidential elections notwithstanding, the state’s powers of political prognostication were also due to the fact that up until 1960, Maine held its statewide elections in September and national elections in November.
For many decades, it was a political outlier in that sense, as the vast majority of states held all local, state and national elections in November. Supposedly, Maine held its state and local elections in September in order to let Maine farmers get politics out of the way before the harvest season kicked into gear, though there’s no specific historic record to back up that claim.
Those early elections gave Maine a two-month head start, which provided a unique opportunity to speculate on what Maine’s elections would mean for the country. And for decades, Maine almost always predicted outright who would win.
In the 1930s, however, what was once a political bellwether began to change. In 1936, Maine voters chose Republican Lewis O. Barrows as governor and voted entirely Republican for the Maine state Legislature. If “As Maine goes” had held true, Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon would have won — but Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the overwhelming victor, with Landon only landing eight electoral college votes, all from Maine and Vermont. Roosevelt’s campaign manager joked that the saying should change to “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”
Starting with the election of Democrat Edmund Muskie as governor in the 1954 election, Maine has stopped being a reliably Republican state, electing just three Republicans as governor (John H. Reed, John McKernan and Paul LePage) out of the 10 elected governors since. Maine has also had a mix of Republicans, Democrats and an independent as both U.S. senators and representatives.
Ohio has since become the best predictor of presidential elections, predicting 29 out of 32 elections since 1896 — a track record that’s actually better than Maine’s was in the 19th century. Notably, Ohio did not predict the outcome of the 2020 election.
“As Maine goes, so goes the nation” hasn’t been true for decades, at least when it comes to politics. Maine has led the way in other senses, like being one of the first states to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, being the first state to pass same-sex marriage at the ballot box and being the first state to approve ranked-choice voting at the state level.
We might not be a useful tool for political pollsters and pundits for election predictions anymore, but we lead in other ways.