In the 1972 presidential election, President Richard Nixon drubbed Sen. George McGovern, but the ensuing Watergate scandal cast the Nixon campaign in the worst possible light.
A post-election national survey asked voters which candidate they had supported. In several states McGovern had lost, the poll found a majority saying they had voted for him. In fact, he would have made it a close race, if what they said was true.
A book entitled “How McGovern Won the Presidency” was published. An obvious work of fiction, it suggested everybody knew he would lose, so he had done something bold enough to change the result.
He told voters he understood, just as they did, that he was going to lose to the incumbent president. He asked them to vote for him, reducing Nixon’s margin and sending the president, who supported the Vietnam War, a message denying him their vote of confidence.
In this story, McGovern’s request to the voters had brought the impossible result. McGovern won.
Of course, that is a political fairy tale, and McGovern never made the proposal. But it makes the point candidates should talk honestly and realistically with voters, recognizing they should make political deals with voters instead of with financial backers, political leaders or other candidates. Then, surprising things can happen.
In fact, candidates almost never make deals with voters, other than to pander to them by making promises they won’t or can’t keep.
The “almost never” is in that sentence, because it just happened here in Maine.
First, here’s the setting for the proposed deal. In the 2010 governor’s election, 61 percent of the voters supported one of two candidates running against Republican Paul LePage who won, having received more votes than either of his competitors.
Second-place finisher independent Eliot Cutler split the rest of the vote with Democrat Libby Mitchell. Newspaper polling reports had shown that either of them had a chance of defeating LePage.
Voters who thought either Mitchell or Cutler would be preferable to LePage were left in a quandary about who to support. The published polling was misleading, causing many voters to wait until the last minute to decide. Finally, the votes began flowing to Cutler.
But the shift came too late for him, and he lost by a narrow margin with the Democrat far behind. You can understand how Cutler must have felt and why he was anxious for another shot at being governor.
The Maine electorate remains split. Governor LePage has his strong support, likely from about the same share of the voters as gave him the Blaine House last time. Whether they support Democrat Mike Michaud or Eliot Cutler, the rest of the voters probably agree in opposing another term for LePage.
So Cutler, now trailing Michaud in the polls, is asked about the risk of a 2010 election repeat, giving LePage four more years.
He notes the Legislature has declined to change the election procedure to prevent Maine having a minority governor. He reports he and Michaud have not made a deal. Such deals among candidates don’t happen, he says, because the two will later end up disagreeing about its terms.
But Cutler says he will make a deal with the voters. Here’s what he proposes.
Cutler says people who think he would make the best governor of the three candidates ought to go all out in campaigning for him. In this difficult race, nothing less than truly active campaigning can make him the winner. He will stay in the race until the end in the hope his supporters and his platform can get him elected.
The second part of his proposed deal is what is almost historic. He says when his supporters vote, if they think he cannot win, they should vote for another candidate.
Many politicians might think this deal amounts to political suicide. Is Cutler conceding in advance?
In reality, Cutler is showing more trust in the wisdom of voters than do most candidates. He is dealing upfront with the greatest concern people have about his candidacy. He wants to win, of course, but he asks his supporters not to turn him into a mere spoiler.
He has shifted the burden to the voters, where it belongs, and to Michaud, who now should offer his supporters the same deal.
I do not endorse candidates, so this is not an endorsement of Cutler. But it is admiration for a rare moment in American campaigns when a candidate takes a big political risk to offer an honest deal to voters.