PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Interstate 95, the Eastern Seaboard’s major thoroughfare, exhausts itself before it can carry a person to Presque Isle. This far north, cell phone service can bounce off Canadian towers, and instead of McDonald’s ubiquitous Golden Arches, drivers pull off to eat at motor inns, few and far between. With 9,000 residents, Presque Isle is a major population center in this northernmost region of Maine, part of the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses roughly 80 percent of the state. It is here, amidst vast expanses of silvery-green broccoli fields, roadside stands hawking fresh-from-the-earth potatoes and former pulp and paper mill towns, that Donald Trump has carved out a new, albeit petite, electoral battleground. He has a shot at winning one of Maine’s electoral votes, something a Republican hasn’t done since 1992. (The state awards its four electoral votes not in winner-take-all fashion, but with a hybrid system that allots two of its votes by congressional district.)
Trump’s strength in the area is a stark example of shifting political winds, a testament to how well the Manhattan businessman’s message plays in rural America and depleted centers of manufacturing, places such as Lewiston and Auburn, further south in the 2nd. National polling has suggested there is no connection between income and support for Trump, but when respondents are asked whether they are struggling to maintain their standard of living, those who said “yes” were more likely to favor Trump; a study out this summer suggested that this might have something to do with parents in economically depressed areas worrying for their children’s future. Trump is outperforming previous Republican candidates not insignificantly in the area: Mitt Romney lost by 6 percentage points more in the 2nd than he did nationally; Trump is doing 6 points better against Hillary Clinton there than he is overall.
This might be because Trump has helped vocalize what it feels like to be disconnected, not just from economic progress but from the rapidly changing technological culture of America in the 21st century. That feeling is plain in the 2nd District. It can be difficult to live in many parts of northern Maine and easy to feel left behind.
“You’ve got to like it here, you know?” Cindy Johansen said as she straightened stacks of brochures for Aroostook County Republicans in the party’s storefront office on Presque Isle’s Main Street. “Winters aren’t all that great.” She said it was hard to keep young doctors and veterinarians who moved to the community for more than a year at a time. Three doors down, at the Democrats’ office, state Rep. Bob Saucier talked about the shoe factories and warehouses that had moved overseas, but also about how hard it was for many of his constituents to get something so many Americans take for granted: internet.
“We FaceTime our grandkids — we have access,” he said, “If I lived two miles outside Presque Isle, I wouldn’t be able to do that.” Saucier, a retired Social Security disability claims rep, was wearing a “My Favorite People Call Me Grandpa” T-shirt. “Just keeping in contact with your family, it’s so important.” His children have moved away from the area.
One of Maine’s most glaring problems is that it is rapidly aging and losing its young people. “We have a lot of baby boomers and not a lot of young people to set it off,” State Economist Amanda Rector said. “We’ve started to see population decline; we have more deaths than births.” There are also fewer jobs for young people to choose from — May saw the fifth closing of a paper mill in two years — and the isolation of driving long distances in many parts of the district to get basic necessities is a turnoff to some who’d rather live in places farther south, like Portland, with its relatively bustling city scene.
Those who live here treasure their lifestyle, though. Johansen and her husband once lived downstate but moved north so she could enjoy her horses; snowmobiles parked in driveways all over the district seemed eager for the trees to turn and the ground to be covered with dense, quick white. Many residents heat their homes with wood pellets and drive longer than most to get to the grocery store, but for so many, it is a small price to pay to live in the echoing, beautiful attic of America, a tucked-away corner of the world.
Still, Trump’s rise has spoken to the ennui of many residents when it comes to the future of the district for the next generation of Mainers. “I would like a great place for our kids to raise my grandkids,” said Republican Tim Guerrette, a cabbage farmer running for state Senate who was dressed, on a recent Tuesday, in a white button-down with a picture of his crop embroidered over the breast pocket. “Jobs and a better economy, lower taxes, lower cost of living. That’s what I’d like to see — I don’t want my kids and grandkids to leave.”
Much as Mainers in the 2nd District are voting with an acute sense of economic anxiety, though, they’re also motivated to preserve a certain culture, one that doesn’t always adhere neatly to a particular political party up and down the ticket. On a recent drive up through Penobscot and Aroostook counties, yard signs for Trump and the district’s Democratic and Republican congressional candidates proliferated, but Clinton signs were virtually nonexistent. A Confederate flag waved from a tree outside one house. The 2nd District, overwhelmingly white and older, with a large population of residents that have only a high school education, mimics, writ small, the demographics of the Republican Party but also the shifting ideology signaled by the nomination of Trump; more populist than George W. Bush’s GOP, more focused on cultural values.
“This is a district [that Republican Gov.] Paul LePage won twice and Obama won twice,” Democratic congressional challenger Emily Cain said, sitting in her Bangor campaign office, a corner of which had been rented out to the Clinton campaign. The 2nd District race between Cain and incumbent Bruce Poliquin has been rated a tossup. That Clinton is losing in the 2nd was of little concern to Cain. “I’m going to ask people to vote for me, and it’s not my job to win anyone else’s election this fall,” she said.
Cain lost to Poliquin in 2014, an election year that saw massive voter turnout — the highest percentage in the nation — thanks to a ballot issue that proposed outlawing bear baiting in the state. (Baiting is the use of food, traps and dogs in order to lure and hunt the animals.) The measure failed, and many chalked up Republican victories in the state that year — including LePage’s re-election — to increased turnout of voters motivated by the hunting measure.
“The orange vote, I call it — everybody who goes hunting who wears orange,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Timberlake, an apple farmer from the southern part of the 2nd, near Auburn. He thinks this year’s Question 3, a measure requiring background checks on gun sales and transfers, might have the same effect on the election. The ballot measure has gotten the attention of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control PAC, which donated heavily to the Question 3 effort. Bloomberg’s involvement has become a rallying point for those opposing the measure; a massive banner hanging in the window of the Trump campaign headquarters in Auburn read, “Don’t NYC My Maine Gun Rights! Vote No On Question 3.” I watched as a FedEx delivery man dropped off packages to the campaign staff and picked up a few bumper stickers with the slogan for himself.
The idea that Mainers don’t cotton to outsiders telling them what to do is a point of pride — “independent” is a pundit byword when it comes to describing the state’s electorate — but Christine Akridge, a 30-year-old Presque Isle artist and computer technician worries at times about the insular nature of the culture in parts of the 2nd, and whether or not it’s preventing positive change.
“They want that small town rural rustic, ‘everything’s about farming and potatoes,’” she said. “They don’t want to really step away from that, even though in some cases, if they could bring a call center up here, they might bring in more jobs.”
It was the same kind of attitude that meant even though she has lived in the town since she was a teenager — Akridge moved from New Mexico — people still referred to her as being “from away.” Still, many young people want to remain in the region where they grew up, Akridge said, and a lot were looking for jobs with companies that would allow them to work remotely.
Envisioning the “globalized future” of politicians’ talking points is the reality of the 2nd District, a daunting task that asks many to fundamentally reimagine their way life. Cain said that the district’s health in the decades ahead would be built off its historic industries and natural resources. There might not be as many paper mills, but the University of Maine was researching composites. Lobster processing could be done in-state rather than being outsourced, and the healthy water table that enables Maine’s emerald forest beauty meant opportunity for sustainable farming, even as places like California struggle with drought.
Trump lacks such specificity in his promises, rarely even tailoring his platitudes for a specific state or place. He will simply bring back greatness. That such vaguery should flourish in a presidential race would have seemed a shocking thing not so long ago. That Americans might buy into it seemed implausible.
If Trump won, I asked Cindy Johansen, what did she want the area to look like 20 or 25 years down the line, as it was restored to greatness?
“Good question,” she said and paused a while. When Johansen started speaking again, it was with great specificity and at some length that she described what her hopes for the 2nd were, filling in the blanks Trump had left, extolling the unlocked promise of her home, clearly grateful for his distant, inchoate advocacy for things to be better than they are now.