How smart is Cutler’s “split the vote” message?

Eliot Cutler

Eliot Cutler

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, the runner-up in the 2010 Maine governor’s race, has been answering questions about whether he’s a spoiler who would split the vote and pave the way for Gov. LePage to win a second term.

Last week this blog highlighted the video the Cutler’s campaign released, in which he answered a young man’s question about this. Cutler said that Maine people should evaluate the candidates and, if they think he is the best option, should campaign for him. Supporters should stick with him, but if they decided at the very end that he couldn’t win, “vote for someone else.”

According to Cutler’s comments on WVOM’s George Hale-Ric Tyler radio show a few days after that blog post, he’s said the same thing hundreds of times.

Indeed, according to a February 2014 report in the Ellsworth American:

“What I have told everybody,” said Cutler,  “is I will make a deal with you. If you think the day before the election I can’t win, you have my blessing to go with someone else.”

Is this a smart strategy from the Cutler campaign?

Before considering that, let’s get one thing out of the way. It clearly is the chosen message from Mr. Cutler. The video in my initial blog post on this subject, as well as the radio clip and newspaper article cited and linked to above all were posted by the Cutler campaign.

These comments didn’t get a lot of notice until lately but it’s evident that they’ve been made for quite awhile. They’ve been made by the candidate himself and the campaign has publicized them. Thus it’s self-evident this message is one they’ve chosen.

And, overall, this is a good choice. 

Clearly, Cutler has been getting the “split the vote” question quite a lot. He needs to have an answer for it.

If Cutler ignored the question or brushed it aside, he would be ignoring a concern on the minds of many “anybody but LePage” voters. That would make him look out of touch.

Also, Cutler’s message includes several parts. He asks people to consider who they think would do the best job as governor and, if they agree he’s the one, to support him and stick with him, unless they determine he can’t win.

In effect, Cutler asks voters to put their strategic voting — a vote based on preventing their least-liked choice from winning — on hold.

The danger here is that some voters will see Cutler was insufficiently committed to the race. After all, if he’s telling people they might end up voting for someone else and that’s ok with him (and he’s even said they could do so with his “blessing”), this implies others are credible alternatives.

However, simply not addressing some voters’ worries about splitting the vote would be ignoring the metaphorical elephant in the room.

On balance, Cutler’s comments work for his campaign.

Now, the Cutler campaign has other challenges ahead.

While he’s offered many policy ideas and is quite comfortable discussing public policy in depth, his campaign continues to focus on his activities four decades ago rather than accomplishments in the last four years. There are real “what have you done lately” questions.

As a candidate without a political party, Cutler doesn’t have the organizational apparatus Michaud and LePage have to support their candidacies. Independent candidates can counter this tendency. Sen. King, for example, attracted a great many volunteers for his senatorial campaign. Has Cutler?

Strategic voting, 2010 and 2014

While Cutler certainly is higher in the polls now than he was four years ago, that is not particularly relevant. Back then he wasn’t known very well.

Now Cutler is the 2010 runner-up who won 36.5% currently averaging 20 percentage points less. That 20% not only constitutes one-fifth of Maine voters, but also more than half of his 2010 election day support.

A good chunk of those were strategic voters in 2010, moving to Cutler from Mitchell because they opposed LePage. Convincing them not to be strategic voters in 2014 is a heavy lift.

If Cutler didn’t acknowledge their concerns about him being a spoiler, that might make it very hard for him to ever gain their support.

No doubt, the race looks like it’s between Rep. Michaud and Gov. LePage.

At the same time, campaigns can have many twists and turns, and no one can be confident how the Maine governor’s race will develop. Cutler has an uphill climb. In the meantime, Cutler is right to answer the “split the vote” question, and his answer is probably the best that can be given.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.