Pollsters and election forecasters are keeping a wary eye on the upcoming Senate election in Maine, which has steadily become one of the most pivotal races in the 2020 election cycle. The Maine Senate race is notable for two key reasons: first, it has the power to change the partisan makeup of the Republican-dominated Senate; second, it represents one of the first uses of ranked choice voting (RCV) in a statewide election and its first use in a Senate general election in the U.S. Though pollsters may be unfamiliar with RCV outside of local elections, the Maine Senate race provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of RCV as an electoral system and a predictive polling metric on the federal level.
Recent polls from Maine show Democratic contender Sara Gideon with a 7-point advantage over incumbent Senator Susan Collins – a significant development in a race that was neck-and-neck several weeks prior. According to the 600-person survey, Gideon garnered 47% of potential votes, and Senator Collins trailed at 40%. Independent candidates Lisa Savage and Max Linn ranked at 5% and 2% respectively.
Most importantly, though polls measured independent voters’ next-choice candidates, as voters will have the option to rank all four candidates according to their preferences. Most of Savage and Linn’s supporters identified the other third-party candidate as their second preference, but 31% of Savage voters opted for Gideon instead. Savage, a Green Party candidate, has encouraged her voters to pick Gideon as their second choice, while Linn asked his supporters to choose Savage to boost the independent image. This suggests these voters' third choices where they can indicate their choice between the major party candidates could be decisive.
No matter who is coming ahead in the polls, the good news is that ranked choice voting (RCV) polling is a reliable tool. RCV allows pollsters to not only monitor the electoral support of two candidates in a bi-partisan election, but also to gauge the overarching preferences of independent and third-party voters. If neither Gideon nor Collins wins a conclusive majority in the first round, independent voters’ next-choice votes may ultimately decide who gets the seat. This exact scenario played out in Maine in 2018, when Democrat Jared Golden pulled ahead of Rep. Bruce Polinquin in the second round with independents’ second-choice ballots.
The Maine race also showcases how RCV supports independent candidates and majority-party candidates at the same time. Though Savage and Linn are unlikely to win this particular election, RCV still grants their supporters the power to influence the election results with their next-best choices. And majority party supporters need not worry about the so-called “spoiler effect” - in too many elections, major parties feel held hostage by the small margins that could help determine the outcome of elections. Instead, with ranked choice voting, elections are about the competition of ideas, and we all benefit when the best ideas rise to the top. That happens when more voices are heard.
Savage and Linn’s endorsements of second-choice candidates show the unifying qualities of an RCV election. Rather than engaging in a combative and zero-sum competition, candidates can cultivate a coalition of supporters on the basis of shared political interests. The winner of the Maine Senate seat will be the candidate that earns the support of an inclusive majority of the electorate, and not simply a partisan plurality.