A part-time political pundit on these pages and on public radio, I am rarely approached in public about my observations. It was, then, an unexpected pleasure when a reader struck up a conversation with me in the Old Port last week.
Until, that is, the reader made it clear that he thought Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman, who comment in tandem across many Maine media outlets, set the bar for political observation in our state. True to be sure, but it still stung a little bit.
After news of my mere adequacy sank in, I bought the reader a beverage and resolved that it was time to step my game up with bolder pronouncements. Here goes …
The man who resides in the Blaine House over the next four years will close in on 50 percent of the vote total despite there being three candidates on the ballot. I think it will come down to the pronouns used by the candidates and the message these parts of speech send to voters.
Eliot Cutler’s candidacy is too much about the candidate and not enough about shared ideals and the self-interest of voters. The result is messaging riddled with first-person pronouns such as “I” and “me.”
Last week, Cutler took on the question about whether he was a spoiler in the 2014 campaign for governor. Cutler confidently discussed his chances for success while suggesting that his supporters are free to vote for someone else if they believed on Election Day that Cutler could not win.
MaineToday Media columnist Bill Nemitz — who is also probably better at this than me — asked Cutler if, in that event, he would actually signal defeat and actively urge his supporters to vote for someone else.
Cutler did not really answer the question in responding, “I don’t believe either Mike Michaud or Paul LePage has the skills, temperament or independence to lead Maine and rebuild our economy,” he wrote. “I am running to make sure neither is elected and that I am, and I feel confident that on Election Day I will be poised to be Maine’s next governor.”
Cutler spends far too much time talking about why he is the most qualified. If Cutler cannot convince voters that their lives are more important than his resume, he will never catch on or catch up. His supporters will not need his permission to cast a vote for an alternative come November.
If Cutler uses the first person too much, LePage errs on the use of divisive labels and third-person pronouns to segment voters. While it has created strong support from voters who believe LePage is fighting for them, the governor’s approach is setting up the 2014 campaign as referendum on four more years of his leadership.
LePage owns the politically popular issues of welfare reform and fiscal responsibility because voters believe he is fighting to protect their tax dollars from welfare cheats and wasteful government spending.
The governor also has created an “us versus them” dynamic against the Augusta establishment with his take-no-prisoners rhetoric and his record-setting use of the veto pen. That LePage would rather fight and conquer than unite and compromise is powerful motivation for his political supporters.
Nevertheless segmentation and division has its limits. Chris Christie, the equally free-spoken Republican governor from New Jersey, was able to position himself for a far easier ride to re-election because he was savvy enough to cut deals in his Democrat-leaning state.
In Maine, views about LePage are so strong that the 2014 campaign among three candidates essentially morphs into a referendum about whether LePage deserves four more years. Voters who believe the answer to that question is “no” will coalesce around the most viable alternative in the closing days.
Right now, that alternative is Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, who is generally leading or tied with LePage in three-way polling on the race for governor. Michaud is the best at using inclusive, collaborative pronouns such as “us” and “we” in his messaging in contrast to LePage’s style. If he maintains that position, he will see a strong surge of late support and close in on 50 percent in the polls.
It would be a mistake to suggest, however, that LePage’s numbers cannot climb as well. He has a unique ability to connect with voters through his passion and resolve. LePage is on the right side of many issues, and he commands the spotlight. If he can show Mainers the heart behind the headstrong tactics, his numbers will go up.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: [email protected] Twitter: @demerittda