July 14, 2015

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington and keen analyst of Maine politics.  He’s known to his students as the funniest man on campus, with the ability to mimic almost any politician. He also utilizes an eclectic array of teaching props including a life size cutout of President Clinton and a magnet depicting the meeting between President Nixon and Elvis Presley.  We know him though as an outstanding scholar and participant in lively discussions at the New England Political Science Association. He and Professor Amy Fried are the authors of Tea Party Talk – The Governors, featuring this gem from Maine Governor Paul LePage: “I’m a firm believer that people pay taxes and that eagles don’t.” Today Professor Melcher explains why Governor LePage’s endorsement of Governor Chris Christie for president is a big deal for the New Jersey governor.

            Trying to decide where to begin in writing a piece on Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, is a little bit like beginning a game of Battleship: one could take a shot at any one of dozens of spots. It has indeed been a turbulent sea on which drama has not been in short supply throughout LePage’s time in office, and even more so since his re-election in a three-way race in 2014. Today’s topic, though, isn’t one of the Governor’s many bones of contention with the state legislature, or anything else he’s railed against. On the contrary, this column will talk about one of the few people in any political party with whom LePage is happy these days: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Paul LePage’s endorsement of his presidential campaign.

            On July 1, LePage made national news as he became the first sitting Republican governor to endorse one of the seeming cast of thousands of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, at an event at Becky’s Diner in Portland. So, the two big questions are “Was this a surprise?” and “How much does it matter?

            Considering that Christie has a reputation as one of the more moderate of the Republican candidates, and LePage is anything but moderate, a casual observer might be surprised. But I’m not. The two men have a warm relationship and a good deal in common. Both have vocal, combative personalities that lead them into confrontations with the media and political opponents alike. Their supporters say they’re candid; their critics say they’re bullies. Christie himself takes on this image on his campaign’s website, with his campaign slogan “Telling It Like It Is” and opening with a video talking about how he feels that’s what he does. Furthermore, they have similar emphases in office as Northeastern governors in focusing on policies they see as business friendly and fiscally conservative, such as tax cuts and taking on labor unions, far more than the religious, social conservatism of a Mike Huckabee or a Rick Santorum.  And perhaps most to the point of all, Christie’s gone to bat for LePage in the past, holding rallies and making multiple campaign fundraising trips to Maine to campaign for LePage’s re-election. As head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie oversaw the RGA’s decision to spend $5.1 million –a huge sum for a Maine election– in the Pine Tree State on LePage’s successful 2014 re-election bid.   Now, these friends have joined together in Portland again.

            How much effect on the election will that endorsement have? Political scientists tend to argue that the more salient the office–that is, how prominent it is to the public–the less the endorsement matters.  That’s because endorsements become more important in races where the public doesn’t have a lot of information. Think of what a challenge it was to find out who to vote for in your latest local, nonpartisan election for, say, school board. In a presidential election, on the other hand, voters have more sources of information than they know what to do with, and more knowledge about the candidates and their positions as a result. Moreover, while politicians seek endorsements and like to get them, political scientists argue that endorsements usually aren’t near the top of the list of factors affecting how people vote.

            So, the conventional wisdom would suggest that LePage’s endorsement isn’t too important. And, certainly Christie hasn’t been making believers out of all of the mass media, with headlines such as “Chris Christie’s Ego Runs for President” , “Chris Christie, a faded Republican star, launches presidential campaign” and, on a libertarian blog. “Chris Christie for President? Or: The Sopranos Go to Washington”.  Indeed, Christie’s faced a torrent of negative news over the past few years, from Bridgegate to spending over $80,000 of his state allowance on concessions at Met Life Stadium. Even the endorsement event itself was the subject of a snarky “thank you” to Christie from one of Maine’s top Democrats, House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan. McCabe argued the event distracted LePage from properly dealing with Legislature-passed bills that may become law against the Governor’s wishes when he did not explicitly veto them. And Maine Republicans didn’t jump to follow LePage’s endorsement. In fact, later that day, Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, announced that she would support Florida Governor Jeb Bush for President. The following day, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport announced that he would not only endorse Florida Senator Marco Rubio but that he would march with him in a 4th of July parade in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. 

          So, will LePage’s endorsement turn the tide for Christie all by himself? No. Nobody’s endorsement could.  Endorsements don’t have that kind of power, and the field is too big and Christie polling too weakly for that.  Will numerous people make the decision to back Christie based on this endorsement? Not likely at all.

            And yet, this may be more significant than you think for the Christie campaign. While endorsements in general elections for president may not matter too much, this is a nomination campaign. Republican voters are choosing between over a dozen candidates, and unlike a general election, they can’t use their party identification to sort them out. Anything that brings positive attention to a candidate in such a large field, where many candidates will struggle to get any media coverage, is helpful. And that goes double for Christie, who pundits have been writing off for dead as a candidate for a long time now. Here is an antidote for him–albeit one with a short expiration date-- for all the media frames that have gone against him. And while many liberals, and not a few moderates, can’t stand Paul LePage, that doesn’t matter much here. This is a Republican presidential nomination fight, and we’ve known for years that it’s party activists who turn out to vote in presidential primaries and caucuses. In the Republican Party of 2014, there aren’t too many liberals. And remember, much of New Hampshire watches Maine TV stations and is familiar with LePage. Paul LePage could be a shot in the arm for Christie in the New Hampshire primary, where LePage’s blunt brand of conservatism could find an audience at fundraisers or speeches, or appearances with Christie. Don’t be surprised to see these friends come back for an encore in New Hampshire.  Chris Christie has a long way to go to catch up to the Republican frontrunners–quite possibly too long of a way. But a campaign that needed good news got a little bit of it at Becky’s Diner this month.

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