Winning Truck Country No Longer Enough for Maine Republicans

Signs of a rougher road ahead for Susan Collins

After a rough 2018 election for Republicans in Maine, it looks like they have a political problem on their hands: winning in truck country — the rural geographic majority of the Pine Tree State — is no longer enough to win statewide races.

In 2014, Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s margin of victory in towns where trucks were the most popular vehicle earned him a second term in office. Four years later, GOP gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody’s margin in those towns was only about one-third of LePage’s. Democrat Janet Mills won 56 truck-heavy towns last fall that LePage had won four years earlier.

This analysis, as well as Democrats’ rising share of registered voters statewide, suggests Sen. Susan Collins faces a tougher road to reelection in next year’s contest than she did in 2014, when she cruised to victory with over two-thirds of the vote.

Moody, the founder of a local chain of auto-body shops, won three in four towns in Maine’s truck country, but his margins there were relatively slim. And his vote totals were far below LePage’s elsewhere in the state.

Mills cleaned Moody’s clock in the more populous, liberal coastal districts dominated by the Subaru Forester, whose owners displayed the strongest partisan preference among drivers of the most popular vehicles in Maine. By remaining competitive in truck country, Mills leveraged her big lead in SUV-ville and sedan-land to top Moody by a margin of almost 8 percent.

This analysis of last November’s election results and vehicle-registration data from September 2018 showed that the more trucks a town had, the higher the share of the vote Moody received there.

Moody relied heavily on towns where the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra are the most popular vehicles. More than seven in 10 votes for Moody came from such towns. Since those trucks are the three most popular vehicles in the state, that’s a big pond to fish.

But it wasn’t enough. And he actually lost to Mills in communities where the F-150 is the most popular truck.

In general, trucks were not the preferred vehicle in coastal communities and urban centers, though there were some exceptions. For example, the Chevy Impala was the most popular ride in the southern Aroostook County community of Reed Plantation, by a margin of one vehicle.

As you can see by hovering over towns in the map above, many places are like Reed Plantation, where the top vehicle has a narrow lead. But the same was true of the candidates’ leads in those areas. This analysis treats both data sets the same by considering the top car and the top candidate in each voting district.

Overall, Mills almost matched Moody in truck towns, but elsewhere her margin of victory was nearly two-to-one. In that regard, she far outpaced her predecessor, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud.

Moody won more than three times as many Chevy Silverado towns than Mills did, but Mills won 23 of 26 Subaru Forester communities. Overall, Mills lagged Moody by 14,162 votes in truck country, but Moody lost by 61,115 votes in areas where trucks don’t rule the road.

What does your vehicle say about your politics?

A deeper look into the data reveals other interesting partisan leanings. For example, among the trucks, there was one outlier: the Toyota Tacoma. Mills and Moody both won three Tacoma towns each, making it the most bipartisan truck by total towns won. Judging by votes, the Ford F-150 was the most bipartisan truck. Mills edged out Moody in Maine’s 62 F-150 towns by 351 votes.

By make, GMC- and Chevy-led towns leaned heavily Republican. Subaru-led towns showed the most partisan lean of all, with the exceptions of Woolwich and Kingfield. Looking only at votes for the two major party candidates, Mills racked up about 72 percent of votes in Subaru Forester territory.

Search by town

Use the search below to find local election results and the top 25 vehicles in Maine towns.

Notes on the data

The analysis leaves some data on the cutting room floor, but ultimately accounts for more than 98 percent of all vehicle registrations and votes cast in the 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial elections. The vehicle registration data reflects vehicles registered as of Sept. 18, 2018. The data was received through an information request to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

From the vehicle registration data, the analysis excludes towns where there was no clear top vehicle — ties of 1–1, for instance. From the election data, it does not factor in overseas votes. A group of smaller towns were also not included because the voting district does not align with a distinct municipal boundary.

Any areas where voting is combined were grouped by the first town listed. For instance, the five votes from Adamstown/Lower Cupsuptic Twps (Rangeley) were processed as Adamstown and did not match with a geographic map provided by the Maine Office of GIS. For Argyle Twp (Alton, Edinburg & Penobscot Nation), however, Argyle Twp was selected and matched.

The vehicle data was cleaned in OpenRefine, using fingerprint and phonetic-string-matching techniques for vehicle model names within each separate vehicle make.

That data was processed and merged with election results in a public data.world project.

The original and cleaned vehicle registration file and the election results file — with headers reformatted from the Secretary of State’s original — are all available in that project.