Cutler’s “blessing” is disingenuous and off-putting


In case you haven’t already heard, gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has given you his blessing to vote for candidate who are not Eliot Cutler in the 2014 election. I am not, by the way, being facetious. He literally said “If you think the day before the election I can’t win, you have my blessing to go with someone else.”

This has been a big deal in the circles of folks who pay any actual attention to gubernatorial elections before Labor Day, which is to say reporters, bloggers, partisan activists, political operatives and wonks, and not any of the people the campaign is actually trying to court come November. Those folks tell me that they typically hear from the campaign when it whines about not receiving the political endorsements they believe themselves entitled to.

Cutler’s blessing is a campaign response to the fact that he has become synonymous with “spoiler” in a three-way race that could land Maine’s worst governor in a second term. Not only would this shameful inevitability be terrible from a policy and quality of life perspective for many Mainers, we would then have to constantly explain to the rest of the country why one LePage term wasn’t embarrassing enough. The thought of having to do so makes people with their head in the game get antsy and Cutler has been the focal point of those anxieties as of late.

This is about the point when Cutler supporters try to bring up the traction the candidate made in 2010, and then Michaud supporters point out that the dynamics between then and now are markedly different. And then I ask “If Cutler is actually serious about these issues, where has he been for the past three years?” And then someone who actually works in Augusta says that they sure as hell haven’t seen him and then I make some joke about how his book is essentially a super long, self-serving campaign tract.

Consider, though, the fact that in 2008, nearly 98% of requested absentee ballots were later accepted and counted. In 2012, over 188,000 voters requested absentee ballots, which were likely used before Election Day. As such, the logic of Cutler’s “spoiler” solution is flawed due to the fact that the popularization of absentee and early voting has made it so that a substantial number of voters—about a quarter of everyone who votes—will have cast their ballot by the day before the election.

So the “blessing” is the campaign’s way of speaking to the perceived problem without actually addressing it. As for real solutions to the two-party monopoly on our electoral system, I was heartened to see that Cutler made reference to runoff and ranked choice voting last year, but I have not heard much about it since he jumped into the race. Ranked choice voting, the system by which voters can rank candidates in order of preference (thus allowing for more than two candidates), is a topic Cutler should bring up in response to every “spoiler” claim. The campaign should remind that there really is a way to reform the system. Unfortunately for the campaign—and fortunately for the two dominant parties, which I am sure are elated that an alternative system is not casually making its way into these conversations—access to real choice in electoral contests comes by reforming the process altogether and not necessarily by way of the candidate forcing himself into this race in particular.

While I have found much of the Cutler campaign messaging to be sloppy, I thought that their call for debates pre-primary to be moderately clever. On one hand, these calls create the impression that the two party establishment doesn’t want the people to hear the marvelous truths the independent candidate has to offer and so they are intentionally locking him out of potential debates. I imagine this plays well to those who don’t realize the reason there have been no debates is because we aren’t technically through primary season and so there aren’t actual, party-certified candidates until then (even if it is clear that the Democrats are treating Michaud as their front-runner). Potential supporters who aren’t aware that technical rules are what keeps the debates from happening, not some institutional conspiracy.

This likely gets the handful of well-intended people focusing on the race to put their name on a petition, which requires email registration. Campaigns love anything that drives registration because registration leads to volunteer sign-ups, donor solicitations, and an audience for emails in which candidates can double-down on offering their permission—their blessing—to vote for whomever the recipient chooses.

Someone suggested to me that Cutler deserves credit for “attempting to have a substance-based conversation” in the 2014 election. The Democrats’ message has fallen short and has focused primarily on polling and electability. Rather than talking about Cutler’s character or campaign, we should be discussing jobs, taxes, the environment, restoration of the American dream, and the various policy points that matter in this election.

Fair, though there is little that I have seen from the Cutler camp that convinces me that the campaign is about much more than Cutler himself. I am in agreement with Republican strategist Dan Demeritt, who wrote that “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.” Democratic campaigns and candidates can be thin on policy, substance and messaging (and the Republicans are wholly out of touch), but the Cutler campaign does little to convince me that Cutler cares about more than Cutler, and his “blessing” does nothing to reverse that feeling.

I was a proud and unrepentant Nader supporter (I am a contributing member of the Green Party) and so I am not down on the concept of a “spoiler” candidate itself. I am similarly critical of many of the ways Democrats and progressives present messaging and address their approach (and sometimes lack thereof) to important issues. I am always thrilled when any entity—a campaign, a news organization, an activist groups—forces a candidate to be clear about where they stand. And so my issue is not with the candidacy itself, but with the candidate, the campaign and with their ineptitude in messaging. I have talked with more than a few 2010 Cutler supporters that feel the same way.

If this really is about choice and augmenting access to choices on the ballot, there are very important ways to address this and to do so earnestly. I would love to see these options, namely Ranked Choice Voting, discussed in the place of reactive messaging that comes off as condescendingly as the rest of the campaign strikes me. I have not, however, been convinced that this is about choice, election reform or any meaningful changes that gives voters options beyond those provided by a stale, two party system.

PHOTO CREDIT: Troy Bennett

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.