Nobody knows who won Maine’s hotly contested and sometimes bitter 2nd Congressional District race.

The two leading contenders — Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden — are more or less tied.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, with all of the towns with significant populations already reporting, both candidates had a bit more than 120,000 votes. With a number of rural locales yet to report, it appears Poliquin might wind up with a tiny lead.

Until this year, that would have been enough to send Poliquin, 65, back to Capitol Hill to continue pushing for lower taxes, fewer regulations and more goodies for Maine.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, seeking re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, greets supporters at his election night party, Tuesday in Bangor.

With Maine’s new ranked-choice voting, however, that future is less clear.

Of fewer than 300,000 votes cast Tuesday in the race across the sprawling district, about 1 in 12 landed in the column of either Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar, the often-overlooked independents in the four-way battle for Poliquin’s U.S. House seat.

The second- or third-place choices of those who voted for Hoar or Bond will almost certainly decide whether Golden pulls off an upset or Poliquin remains in Washington.

Trying to figure out how those extra votes will go is impossible without running them through a tabulator and counting them up — which is exactly what Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap plans to do next week.

Until then, though, speculation is running rampant.

Poliquin and Golden are both trying to stay optimistic and patient.

Democratic candidate for District 2 Jared Golden greets his supporters at the Franco Center in Lewiston late Tuesday night.

“We are waiting on the results along with the citizens of the state of Maine,” Brent Littlefield, a Poliquin consultant, said Wednesday.

Golden seemed happy on Election Night but held back from claiming victory, content to see how the votes tally up.

But he’s not immune to thinking about the possibility he’ll wind up in Washington.

The other day, Golden said that if he comes out on top, he won’t follow Poliquin’s example of bedding down for the night in his office; Poliquin sleeps in his office’s Murphy bed during congressional sessions.

Instead, Golden said, he’ll find a little apartment somewhere like the one he used to have as a homeland security aide for Maine Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Nothing fancy, he said, just a place to crash each night.

There are a few clues, though, that may help discern whether the Democrat’s dreams are likely to be dashed.

For one, an internal poll by Democrats found that Golden is three times more likely to be the second choice of independent voters than Poliquin. The poll has a big margin of error, but it may mean something.

Bond said she has no idea how her supporters voted.

Though both Hoar and Bond said they would pick Golden before Poliquin — who was the last choice of each of his three challengers — it’s not clear that the types of voters attracted to independents are inclined to take advice from any politician, even the one they voted for.

Since ranked-choice voting never before has decided the outcome of a congressional election, it’s hard to say how it will play out. There is no history to rely on.

There is only the political science reality that every time an incumbent is on the ballot, the race is to some degree a referendum about that one person. Does he or she deserve re-election? Yes or no.

So somebody who votes for anybody other than Poliquin, insiders said, is more likely than not to pick the incumbent last in a ranked-choice scenario.

What everyone agrees on is that it comes down to numbers.

Based on the returns as of about 3 p.m. Wednesday, about 21,000 votes were cast for the two independents. If, for instance, two-thirds of those voters picked Golden second, Golden would receive about 14,000 to Poliquin’s 7,000, for an increase of about 7,000 votes for Golden.

If Golden captures 3 in 5 of those same ballots, his total margin increases by about 5,000 votes, perhaps still enough to win, but getting tighter.

Make it a 55-percent-to-45-percent share of the independent ballots, and Golden gains about 2,000 votes over Poliquin.

To put it another way, a few thousand independent voters going one way or another are going to decide who will represent Maine’s sprawling 2nd District for the next two years.

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