MILLINOCKET, Maine — Michael Madore and Tom Leet remember when this was called the “Magic City,” an oasis of prosperity in the dense Maine woods. The magic and the paper mills that created it are gone, and the men disagree on which presidential candidate can best help bring something — anything — back. But they know this year their vote might have a little more weight than usual.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have lavished an unusual amount of attention on rural northern Maine this election cycle because the state splits its two electoral college votes between its two congressional districts — one in the northern part of the state, the other in the south. The line that divides them is emblematic of the divides that have emerged this election cycle: urban vs. rural, college educated vs. not, well-off vs. working class, and Clinton vs. Trump.
“The southern part of the state usually speaks for the northern,” but not this election year, said Leet, who plans to cast a ballot for Trump.
The more densely populated 1st Congressional District in the south, which includes Portland, looks as though it will swing for Clinton. But the outcome is up in the air here in the 2nd Congressional District, a 27,000-square-mile swath of dense forest, rugged mountains, potato and blueberry farms, fishing villages, hardscrabble industrial cities and pretty towns that stretch to the Canadian border. Polls have shown a virtual dead heat between Clinton and Trump, and both campaigns are showing up to a place that even some Mainers said feels forgotten.
Clinton trails Trump in this part of the state by about 7 points, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, and each side is scrambling to try to gain an advantage.
Trump has visited the state three times, including a rally in Bangor last weekend. Earlier in the month, he dispatched his son Eric and daughter-in-law Lara to campaign at an apple orchard and speak in the campaign’s stuffy storefront headquarters in Bangor. Clad in a gray suit, Eric Trump told the crowd his father would bring jobs back to the United States and beef up the military.
“We’re doing so well in northern Maine,” Eric Trump told a local television station as supporters helped themselves to bags of snacks. “We’re gonna win Maine.”
Clinton’s campaign has dispatched volunteers throughout the district to knock on doors and phone bank, and all but two of her staffers in the state have been deployed to the 2nd District. Her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, daughter Chelsea and “Lord of the Rings” actor Sean Astin also campaigned in northern Maine.
One of Clinton’s most important surrogates in Maine has been her former primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of nearby Vermont, who trounced Clinton in the Maine caucuses. Sanders’s message of income inequality and ire against Wall Street strongly resonated in a state where the manufacturing base has been hollowed out and where there is little growth outside the Portland area.
“Mr. Trump has made our bad trade policies a very important part of his campaign and he comes to Maine and goes all over the country . . . and he says he’s against outsourcing,” Sanders said during an Oct. 7 visit to Bangor. “If you are so concerned about outsourcing American jobs, why do you have factories in Bangladesh where you’re paying workers 30 cents an hour? Why are you making your ties in China?”
Several hundred people packed into a gym to see Sanders. Many wore T-shirts with his name or face on them or buttons from his failed presidential campaign.
Marissa Lopez, 40, who works three jobs, was one of them. She is voting for Clinton, but it wasn’t an easy decision.
“Bernie always said, ‘not me, us,’ ” she said. “I don’t want to see the country regress.”
In interviews, both Clinton and Trump supporters cited many of Maine’s problems. It is the oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 44.2 years. It has one of the nation’s highest rates of out-migration and one of its lowest birthrates — and few people are moving in to replace those who leave. The nation’s opiate crisis has damaged many of its cities and towns, and work is scarce in the rural regions.
Here in Millinocket, the gateway to Mount Katahdin, a nearly mile-high peak that is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the city’s paper mill closed a few years ago and vacant storefronts line the main street. The paper mill in neighboring East Millinocket shut down in 2014.
“We are surviving, we are still here, but certainly not what we were,” Madore said of Millinocket, noting its population has fallen to 4,500 from 9,000 during the heyday of the mills.
Madore said he plans to vote for Clinton, believing that her experience could help Maine with trade. The state is exporting many of its lobsters to China, feeding a booming market for the crustaceans. Millinocket has signed contracts with multiple Chinese schools that guarantee payments of thousands of dollars to the city so Chinese students can study here.
Maine is also the nation’s least diverse state, with about 95 percent of residents identifying as white in 2014. There has been an influx of refugees over the past 20 years, and tension has come with it — most recently stoked by the state’s own governor.
Gov. Paul LePage (R) is a Trump backer who shares a lot in common with the Republican presidential nominee: brash, combative and unapologetic about it. In recent years he has told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” said asylum seekers are bringing disease and are the state’s biggest problem. He also has called for the public execution of drug dealers, saying most of them are black and Hispanic and that many come to Maine to “impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.” LePage suggested in August he would step down after a profane voice mail he left a lawmaker surfaced publicly, but he has remained in office.
LePage endorsed Trump in February. Last week, LePage said the nation needs Trump’s “authoritarian power,” but said the next day he meant to say “authoritative” and that President Obama is a “dictator.”
LePage is not far from the minds of voters here. Some, like Sandi Blanchette of Orland, find him refreshing and think he has been a good fiscal steward.
“He’s just like Trump,” said Blanchette, who plans to support the Republican nominee.
Nadine Lewis of Ellsworth doesn’t like LePage, but the former Sanders supporter said she plans to vote for Trump. She wants to shake up the status quo. She is in the same predicament as Audrey Sparkes, a Clinton supporter from Bangor: Both have barely enough to live here, yet leaving is out of the question.
“I’m low income in Maine,” Lewis said, adding that there are few jobs available to increase her income. “I don’t have the money to move.”