PORTLAND, Maine — Most mornings, Don Nech trucks down to the rusty piers skirting this historic fishing town. After the boats come in, he loads up 90-pound cases of lobster, their feelers jagging from the boxes like needles from a pincushion.
It's hard work. It's cold and it's wet. It smells bad. And worst of all, it pays worse than his last job, lost when his company moved a factory abroad.
All that would seem to make Nech the perfect man to respond to the populist call of Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan this election year. Nech is a free-trade victim. He's blue-collar to the core. He lives in America's most independent state. And he voted twice for Ross Perot.
But Nech, like many who once flocked to Perot, has gone mainstream. And this election, he's voting for Democrat Al Gore for president.
"The economy's going good; we're on the right track. It's global now, and we have to get better," said Nech, 53, as he walked across the dock with a box of agitated lobsters, gulls screaming overhead. "I just worked for the wrong company."
The anxiety and outrage that turned Perot into the most successful third-party candidate in modern political history has all but disappeared in the waning days of the 2000 election.
Hard to Figure Where Perot Voters Will Go
The Democrats' recent hand-wringing about Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's charge is more a reflection of the tightness of this year's presidential race than a sign of a new third-party uprising, experts say. In most national polls, Nader draws between 4% and 5%. That's just about half what Perot got in 1996, with a lackluster campaign, and about a quarter of his national draw in 1992.
People who voted for Perot defy easy categorization. They came from the left and the right, rich and poor. Many were first-time visitors to the ballot box, swept up by Perot's charisma and frustrated by a failing economy. With Perot gone and jobs plentiful, experts say many of those people are likely to find little of interest in either Vice President Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"Perot pulled in fringe people who don't like either party and who don't vote under normal circumstances," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan analyst. "I don't see anything inherent in either Bush or Gore that will pull those people out."
All that makes it difficult for pollsters to figure out where, exactly, the 8 million people who voted for Perot in 1996 are headed this year.
Some have dropped out altogether and don't show up in polls of registered voters. Many are undecided. But the bulk, experts believe, have returned to mainstream candidates, particularly Bush.
A national Los Angeles Times Poll in September of registered voters showed 81% of those who voted for Perot in 1996 were backing mainstream candidates this year. Bush was leading Gore among those Perot voters by a 2-1 margin.
There is no better place to witness the fading of the Reform movement than in Maine, the most independent of independent-minded states. Maine championed Perot's cause longer and harder than any other place, awarding him the largest percentage of votes in the nation in 1992 and 1996.
Perot Virtually Tied Bush in Maine in '92
In 1992, Perot virtually tied the Republican nominee--then-President Bush--with about 31% of the Maine vote, about twice the level he received from the state in 1996.
It's a state that twice has elected independent governors, including current Gov. Angus King. Its two senators are Republican; its two House members are Democrats. Recent polls show it also has more undecided voters than most states. In a poll of registered voters earlier this month, 42% were voting for Bush, 37% for Gore and 11% remained undecided.
This time of year, the state is dressed in all its glory: the air crisp but still not cold; the fall colors brilliant, with red and yellow leaves aglow like a honey jar with sunlight streaming through.
The season complements the lingering sadness among longtime Reform Party members here, a longing for what was and what might have been.
One of the great ironies of recent presidential politics is that, after surviving two elections on outrage, hand-painted signs and an eclectic collection of devoted volunteers, the Reform Party withered as a political force the very year it finally received official recognition and $12.5 million in federal election funds.
The collapse culminated at the party's national convention in Long Beach in August, when the party split into two rival factions, one that nominated conservative commentator Buchanan as their candidate and another that selected transcendental meditation proponent John Hagelin.
A judge declared Buchanan to be the rightful nominee and awarded him the federal election funds. But neither man is receiving enough support to register more than 1% in national polls.
That has sickened Reform Party members on both sides of the dispute and has left many Perot die-hards unsure of where their support will lie this year.