“How Maine Decides.” Political Lessons from the Pine Tree State

By Tom Porter
“Many books on Maine politics revolve around key figures like Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, and Bill Cohen and the ideological struggles they represent,” said Christian Potholm. “But so much of public policy is actually determined by ballot measures. This book takes readers deep inside the campaign process and shows what works and what does not.”
image of chris potholm book cover 'how maine decides'

Ballot measures and how to conduct them are the subject of Potholm’s latest publication, How Maine Decides: An Insider’s Guide To How Ballot Measures Are Won and Lost (Down East Books, 2024).

The book is described by US Senator Angus King as “entertaining and informative” and by former US Defense Secretary Bill Cohen as “honest, revealing, and just damn fun to read.” Former Maine Governor John Baldacci, meanwhile, says it’s essential reading for those who would involve themselves in referenda.

Potholm, who is Bowdoin College’s DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government Emeritus, has decades of experience as a political strategist and organizer, as well as a scholar.

He has worked on many of Maine’s major referendum measures, from the Maine Yankee ballot referendum in 1980, in which the state voted to allow the Wiscasset-based nuclear power plant to continue operating, to the gay marriage question in 2012, when Maine became the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Potholm’s career also included ten years as national pollster and strategist with the Nature Conservancy, where he worked on the various Land for Maine’s Future questions, which authorized state funding to purchase land for conservation purposes. He then worked on taking similar conservation measures to several other states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Florida, Rhode Island, and Virginia, losing only one in the process.

Furthermore, added Potholm, because Maine has always been a relatively cheap state in which to buy television advertising, it’s not uncommon for outside groups to introduce ballot measures here in order to gain political momentum.

Ballot measures, explained Potholm, require a markedly different approach to working on an individual campaign. “With a referendum, you often get as much as 40 percent of the electorate to play with, whereas in a candidate campaign you’re lucky if you have 8 to 10.” His widespread experience with ballot measures led Potholm to formulate certain principles, or axioms, as he terms them in the book, which constitute guidelines for success in ballot measures.

Each of the book’s fourteen chapters is dedicated to a particular axiom. One chapter, for example, is called “Ballot Measures Are Different than Candidate Measures.” Another shows how your friends and allies can do you more harm than your opponents, while a third addresses the unique importance the Franco American vote has in Maine. 

Potholm in the media: check out this recent interview on WMTW

“That 22 percent of the Maine population that is Franco American decide virtually everything.” Potholm said he has never won a referendum in Maine in which he did not get the majority of the Franco vote. Their important role as swing voters, he explained, means that Maine’s Franco Americans could find themselves playing a crucial role in the upcoming US general elections, where Maine’s second congressional district, heavily populated by Francos, is expected to be a key battleground for control of the House of Representatives and its one Electoral College vote for president.

The Pine Tree State’s second most important group of swing voters in referenda, said Potholm, comprises women who work from home, where the television is often on much of the time. “Usually, they’re the voters who are the most undecided, and it takes them a long time to make up their mind, but this is a key voting bloc. Also, by targeting women who work at home with your messages and authority figures, you automatically get access to senior citizens of both sexes.”

Potholm tapped the minds of some of Maine’s most influential and successful political operatives and consultants when compiling the book. The work also features major material from some of the most widely respected ballot measure operatives in Maine, including Dave Emery, Dennis Bailey, Edie Smith, Erik Potholm, and Kay Rand. As he interviewed them, Potholm said he was struck by a common theme. “We all lamented how much better politics was ten or twenty years ago, when we tried to educate people, convert them, get them on our side. Conducting a campaign was a positive experience about adding people to your cause,” he explained, “whereas much of today’s political rhetoric in candidate races, particularly on the Republican side, seems often highly divisive and depressingly exclusionary.”