The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: Lawn wars

If you count lawn signs on rural roads in western Maine, you’ll find Trump-Pence placards barely outnumbering “Stump Grinding,” “For Sale,” “Clean Fill Wanted” and “Fresh Eggs.” By that measure, the next president of the United States could be some guy named Stump.

As for Joe Biden, he’s being trounced by “Yard Sale.”

Of course, the lawn sign is a notoriously inaccurate method of rating political races. All it takes is a handful of motivated volunteers to cover the landscape with boldly printed cardboard designed to give the impression somebody is electable. If lawns voted, Eric Brakey – who put out tons of signs – would currently be the Republican candidate for Congress in Maine’s 2nd District, and Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree – who puts out hardly any – would be tending bar on North Haven.

Lawn signs don’t win elections, but they do indicate something about how campaigns are being run. And the two major parties have very different strategies in the 2nd District and nationwide.

“The Republican and Democratic parties – from presidential candidates on down – are taking polar opposite approaches to door-to-door canvassing this fall,” said the Politico website. “The competing bets on the value of face-to-face campaigning during a pandemic has no modern precedent, making it a potential wild card in November, especially in close races.”

In the recent past, Democrats relied on a solid ground game to reach rural Maine voters, knocking on doors and holding campaign events. Republicans took a more stand-offish approach, contenting themselves with mailers and TV spots. This year, the two sides have switched places.

According to the Bangor Daily News, the GOP spent more than $800,000 through June on direct voter contacts, and the party claims to have reached 600,000 people, a few of whom might actually vote. At every stop, volunteer canvassers gave Trump signs to anyone who’d take one, which accounts for the incumbent’s sizable edge on local lawns. It’s possible they also offered to grind stumps.

Democrats, more conscious of the coronavirus danger, have made no similar effort to engage voters on their front porches. Instead, they’re texting, phoning, and hosting virtual events. They’ve spent a mere $200,000 in Maine and reached far fewer people than the Republicans, a strategy that one operative told the Bangor paper, puts the “focus more on quality over quantity.” Biden supporters may also qualify for clean fill.

Whose approach is working best?

Trump carried the 2nd District by 10 points in 2016, giving him a single Electoral College vote. But he lost the statewide tally – and Maine’s other three electoral votes – because he got swamped in the liberal 1st District. Even though that doesn’t seem like a great trade-off, Republicans are nevertheless intent on a repeat performance.

In two recent polls, Biden leads Trump by sizable margins statewide, but in the 2nd District, the two were within 2 points of each other. In spite of the lawn signs, Trump seems to have lost ground, at least for now. Former Gov. Paul LePage, the president’s state campaign chairman, said Trump will likely make two more visits to the area (he’s already been here once) before November, which could boost his numbers. Particularly if he buys some fresh eggs.

In contrast, Biden will put more emphasis on states with a bigger Electoral College payoff, limiting his Maine efforts to online mumbling. Did he just say he’ll buy that old lamp at your yard sale?

These contrasting campaign approaches will have implications for races further down the ballot. Trump’s appearances are unlikely to help GOP U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is attempting to maintain a certain distance from his ineptitude. Biden’s invisibility won’t provide a boost to Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, who holds a tenuous lead over Collins. Likewise, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden can’t expect much help from the top of the ticket in his reelection bid, while his challenger, Republican Dale Crafts, is clinging to Trump’s coattails for dear life.

Doesn’t matter to me. I’m voting for Stump.

The only sign in my front yard says “Keep Out.” But you can still email me at

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