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Just enough education to perform

A Republican activist once told me, "The first rule of Maine politics is: Chris Potholm is always wrong."

Thatís somewhat unfair. Christian Potholm ó Bowdoin College professor of government, political pollster, and author ó is best regarded skeptically. While he owns the franchise on research into Maine political campaigns since 1940, thatís mostly because heís valedictorian of a class of one. His Insiderís Guide to Maine Politics is a useful reference, even though itís riddled with mistakes and marred by his insistence on inserting himself into nearly every entry. The Delights of Democracy, a recent book of newspaper columns, is a slapdash effort that buries a few insightful pieces among loads of ephemera best collected only in a recycling bin.

So my expectations for Potholmís latest work, This Splendid Game: Maine Campaigns and Elections, 1940-2002, were somewhere below those of a Red Sox world championship. Perhaps for that reason, I found this book less disappointing than his previous two. In many chapters, his knowledge of the political process outweighs his inability to get facts straight and keep his ego under control.

The premise of this book is that in many elections, the campaign ó for some pretentious reason, Potholm insists on calling it "the campaign qua campaign" ó is more important than the candidates. This explains why a legendary politician such as Republican Margaret Chase Smith could lose to an upstart like Democrat Bill Hathaway in the 1972 US Senate race. Smith was still relying on the campaign techniques she used to win her first congressional race in 1940: mass mailings and speeches. Hathaway employed polling and 30-second TV spots.

As that contest illustrates, itís not enough for one candidate to conduct an excellent campaign. Lots of superb campaigners ó Dale McCormick, Rick Bennett, Patrick McGowan, Harry Richardson ó have never won a race for major office, mostly because their opponents made fewer and less costly mistakes. In determining the impact of campaign strategy on the outcome of elections, itís crucial to examine not only what the winner did right, but also what the loser did wrong.

To accomplish that, Potholm picks a "seminal election" from each decade. This is a mixed blessing, because many of these campaigns feature the invaluable contributions of one Christian Potholm, Ph.D. On the one hand, the guy has invaluable access to inside information. On the other, he tends to skew history so as to create the impression he stands at the center of the stateís electoral universe. The word "I" appears at least 19 times on the first two pages of this book. In contrast, Joe Brennan, a former governor, congressman, and US Senate candidate, merits just 15 entries in the entire index, while Olympia Snowe, in spite of her long career in Congress, gets a mere 10 mentions.

Clearly, Potholm plays favorites. While he begrudgingly concedes Ed Muskieís role in reviving the Democratic Party in the 1950s, his coverage of Republican Bill Cohen in the 1970s and independent Angus King in the 1990s is more extensive and effusive, mostly because he played major roles in both their campaigns. By concentrating on Potholm qua Potholm to the exclusion of many significant races and candidates, the author renders his book less a definitive work and more a limited resource for some future, better-rounded examination of our political past.

Even so, This Splendid Game deserves space on the shelves of political junkies, if only for exploding popular myths. "Having more money than your opponents in a ballot measure situation in Maine is simply not in and of itself enough for victory," Potholm writes. "It is not the independent variable itís cracked up to be." Then he proves it with facts and figures. He also rehabilitates the reputation of ex-GOP Senate candidate Bob Monks, exposes the fatal flaws in the 1980 anti-nuclear referendum, and explains why negative campaigning isnít always a bad idea. His examination of the similarities between voters who backed independent Jim Longley for governor in í74 and those who voted for independent King in í94 establishes the blueprint for the next generation of non-party candidates.

That doesnít mean this book is completely reliable. Names are misspelled (at least five in the foreword alone, including mine), errors are compounded (George Mitchell could not have run for "re-election" to the US Senate in 1982 because heíd been appointed to office), influence is overstated (Kingís election in í94 was hardly seminal, since it had little long-term effect on the state, other than the budget crisis he left behind).

Some of this is sloppiness. Some is due to the authorís narrow focus. "Iím simply not interested in what political figures do after they are elected," he writes. "Iím only interested in what got them elected or failed to get them elected."

Now we know. Chris Potholm isnít always wrong. Heís just wrong-headed.

You can email me qua me at ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: August 22 - 28, 2003
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