Update: Mitt Romney has won the presidential straw poll for the 2012 Maine Republican caucus by only three percentage points. Mitt Romney won 39 percent of the vote, while Ron Paul drew 36 percent.
The 2012 Maine Republican caucuses are the odd birds of the GOP primary system. Most states hold their caucuses in one day; Maine takes at least a week. Most states bind their delegates to a candidate; Maine doesn't bother. Most, if they claim the title of closed caucus, enforce strict registration requirements; Maine makes them as loose as possible.
The state's unconventional ways and unpredictable results are what make candidates like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich shy away. It's also what gives Texas Rep. Ron Paul his best chance to win.
Maine's Weird, Wacky Caucuses
The first thing those following the race notice about the Maine caucuses are their length. The Maine Republican Party asked that all municipal committees hold their caucuses from Feb. 4 to Feb. 11. But Maine's caucuses actually run far longer than that: The first caucus, in Waldo county, was held on Jan. 29, with the last one in Hancock set for March 3.
Then there are the 24 delegates. A presidential straw poll will be held on Saturday, but the poll is non-binding. The poll will serve as an indicator of Maine voters' intents, and which candidates they support, but it is the state convention that will determine which delegates actually go the Republican National Convention in August.
This is similar to the system in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado. But even after the state convention, on May 5, all 24 delegates still won't be bound to any candidate.
And finally, there are the voters themselves. Maine holds a closed caucus system, meaning only registered Republicans can vote for a nominee. But previously unregistered voters, and those unaffiliated with either party, can register as Republicans at the polls, meaning independents can participate in the closed caucus as well.
'We're about as non-binding as you can get.'
The Maine caucuses, then, offer no set delegates, don't give a full picture of the state, and boast voters who refuse to do anything but go against the grain.
Little surprise, then, that the state loves independent candidates. Angus King was state governor from 1995 to 2003, and in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot received a higher share of the vote in Maine than in any other state.
And while the state doesn't offer much in terms of guaranteed delegates, it differs from Missouri in being unabashedly proud of its emphasis on voter preference over party politics.
Maine prides itself on its political independence, and its wealth of unaffiliated voters. The state has two moderate Republican senators, a conservative Republican governor, and two liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives. Maine likes to keep its voting options open. And any attempt to change that freedom of choice will not go down easy.
Mike Quatrano, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, told The Washington Post that the GOP has been trying to consolidate its caucuses since early 2011. They settled on Feb. 4-11 as a time when all the municipalities would vote. Only 22 of Maine's 97 municipalities managed to schedule their caucus for that time frame.
[It's been] kind of a culture shock to some of these folks, Quatrano said, adding that moves to shorten the caucuses to a day or even a weekend absolutely did not fly.
We're as non-binding as you get, Quatrano added.
'It's a pretty important state.'
All of which makes it fertile ground for a candidate like Ron Paul.
The Texas congressman has marked his place in the Republican primary race as a candidate in it for the long haul, uncompromising in his sometimes inspiring, sometimes controversial positions, and far less concerned with winner-take-all primary wins than GOP rivals Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
In fact, his strategy for winning the Republican nomination -- collecting as many delegates as he can from caucus states in order to fight it out at the Republican National Convention -- is a strategy that mirrors the essence of the Maine caucuses.
That's something the candidate is banking on, and which he needs to keep enthusiasm for his candidacy alive. Despite placing well in Minnesota, Paul needs a first-place win if he wants to expand support for him before the August convention.
Paul has certainly invested a lot of time in the state. Major news sources report armies of enthusiastic volunteers stumping for Paul throughout Maine and the surrounding states, and his organization there mirrors the system he had in Minnesota, where he won a very respectable second place.
Paul vs. Romney
The main obstacle in Paul's way is former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.
Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who both work better in socially conservative areas in the South, have not even bothered to visit the state, convinced that campaigning in Maine is a lost cause.
Romney, meanwhile, is the same candidate who swept Maine in his first quest for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2008, Romney won the caucuses with 52 percent of the vote. Ron Paul claimed only 18 percent, coming in a few percentage points behind John McCain.
In that race, Maine Republicans were undoubtedly concerned with the issue of electability when they cast their votes.
But as the Romney campaign continues to tout Romney as the man to beat President Obama, his campaign staff is scrambling to explain away their candidate's losses in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri this week, all of which went to unlikely winner Rick Santorum. With Gingrich's victory in South Carolina, the supposed front-runner of the Republican race has in fact won only three states of the seven who've voted so far.
And if ever there was a time for Maine to swing for Ron Paul, it is 2012. The Tea Party, appearing after Romney's first attempt at the nomination, has a strong hold on the state, and it is one of the reasons that Paul LePage is currently governor there.
Though Paul cannot be considered a Tea Party candidate, those advocating less government intervention, less taxes and fewer bailouts are more likely to vote for the Texas libertarian than for a former governor many still link to programs like Romneycare.
The influx of independent-leaning feeling across the United States in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election also bodes well for Paul's chances in Maine. At each of the states in the primary process so far, Paul has far outdone his numbers from 2008, with his support (as translated into votes) averaging 67 percent higher in caucus states than in 2008.
Republican Chair Predicts Close Race
Mitt Romney initially had no visits planned in Maine on Saturday. Just before the weekend, however, the former Massachusetts governor added two at the last minute, an indication of how close he believes the race there may be.
Close being the operative word, both for Mitt Romney and for Ron Paul. With Santorum and Gingrich hardly bothering, Maine has always been a two-man race.
But despite the length of the caucus system, Maine has decided to release all the results in bulk on Saturday night. There has been no serious polling of the state either. All of this makes the election results incredibly unpredictable, especially given the two most popular candidates who are pitted against each other.
What will happen is that either Paul or Romney will win by 200 votes, in my opinion, Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster told The Guardian. One way or the other.
If Romney manages the same victory he pulled off in 2008, murmurs about the legitimacy of his front-runner status may be quieted, at least for now.
But if Paul wins an upset victory in the Northern state, Romney will have to wait almost three weeks, until the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28, before he has the chance to win back his hard-lost momentum.
And for Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, that first official victory could help propel his campaign to greater national attention.
Paul's name has gotten about five times more Google search traffic in Maine than Romney's in the last 30 days. If those unpredictable and defiant Maine voters like what they see in the unpredictable and defiant Ron Paul, Mitt Romney is going to have a very bad month ahead of him.