New poll highlights Mainers’ strong feelings about LePage

The latest fix for Maine political junkies fixated on the 2014 governor’s race came Wednesday when Critical Insights, a Portland-based polling firm, released its semi-annual trend-tracking survey.

Polls this far before an election offer little more than conversation starters, but the Critical Insights results highlighted the magnitude of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s influence on Mainers’ attitudes. The survey pegs LePage’s favorability rating at 37 percent, down 5 percentage points from last fall and 10 points from his high mark in fall 2011.

The highest percentage of respondents who believe Maine is headed in the right direction attributed that positive change to LePage. Likewise, the highest percentage of those who believe Maine is on the wrong track identified LePage as the cause. Dissatisfaction with his job performance jumped from 47 percent in fall 2012 to 53 percent now, the poll shows.

“Typically Mainers don’t put as much emphasis on the executive,” said MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of Critical Insights. “It’s interesting that there’s so much focus. He’s that kind of personality and is so much out front.”

But he’s not much out front in a hypothetical three-way race for governor.

The phone survey of 600 self-identified registered Maine voters between May 1 and May 7 also asked respondents to say who they’d vote for in a three-way contest between LePage, independent Eliot Cutler and an unnamed Democrat. In that scenario, support for LePage registered 30 percent, while Cutler notched 28 percent and the unnamed Democrat 16 percent.

Strikingly, 21 percent of respondents answered “don’t know” and 4 percent said “none of the above,” which creates the potential for a fiercely contested general election next year, according FitzGerald.

Republicans and Democrats questioned whether the results give an accurate preview of next year’s election.

“I don’t discuss internal polls publically, but these numbers are not even mildly on the same planet from numbers I have seen recently from a qualified professional polling firm,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser. “The governor’s standing is quite strong in the state of Maine today.”

Littlefield said voters and political observers should be wary of “free” polls like those conducted by Critical Insights.

FitzGerald said her firm is not affiliated with any of the candidates and that the results released Wednesday are part of semi-annual public opinion tracking that Critical Insights has done for almost two decades. She acknowledged that the 2014 gubernatorial candidate question did not offer Steve Woods, the only declared Democratic candidate, as an option and that the timing of the poll made it more a snapshot of the level of current support for LePage and Cutler than a predictor of next year’s results. However, it helps define the Democrats’ core base of support, she said.

“What it did show us was that one out of every six voters would vote for a Democrat regardless of who the party nominates,” she said.

Democrats saw it differently — as an indication that Cutler can’t win.

“This is a kind of ridiculous poll question,” said Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party. “You have two declared candidates who are actively campaigning against an unknown Democrat. That doesn’t carry much weight. If anything it just proves what we’ve been saying all along, Eliot Cutler can’t win this race. Even against Gov. LePage and some hypothetical unknown he can’t even get more than 30 percent.”

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for Cutler, characterized that interpretation as “wishful thinking.”

Democrats continue to await 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s decision on whether to run for governor. Previous polls gave Michaud high favorability ratings, leading many to believe that he would be the strongest statewide challenger to LePage and Cutler.

Cutler and LePage have registered as candidates with the Maine Ethics Commission, but neither has formally declared.

O’Meara said it’s not wise to put much stock in early polls, but he said Cutler’s supporters are beginning to discern a pattern.

“In two consecutive polls, [Cutler] is showing up as the strongest alternative to the Gov. LePage,” O’Meara said referring to a Pan Atlantic SMS poll that in early April showed Cutler in a close race with LePage and a variety of potential Democratic candidates.

Critical Insights lists the margin of error at plus or minus 4 percent. Other intriguing findings include:

— The percentage of respondents who believe the economy worsened during the past 12 months is the lowest in 12 years, according to FitzGerald. “There’s some guarded but solid optimism about the economy,” she said.

— Respondents are less optimistic in general about the state’s prospects. The percentage of those who said Maine is generally headed in the right direction declined from 42 percent in fall 2012 to 30 percent in May 2013.

— President Barack Obama’s favorability rating in Maine dropped during the past six months to a point where it’s lower in Maine than it is nationally, That doesn’t surprise FitzGerald, who attributes it in part to “typical Maine lack of exuberance.” However, the polling occurred before controversies over Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of conservative political groups and the Benghazi embassy attacks enveloped the administration.

— U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is up for re-election in 2014, remains hugely popular, with an approval rating of 68 percent. New Sen. Angus King registers 49 percent approval, with 36 percent saying they don’t know how to rate him and 15 percent expressing disapproval.

— A third of those polled say that the Boston Marathon bombings make them more likely to support stronger enforcement of immigration laws. FitzGerald said that constitutes a significant swing in public opinion.

View the survey results here.

— Robert Long