The prolonged war of words among the gubernatorial candidates became a war of numbers Thursday with the release of four sets of polling data. Each campaign quickly began spinning the results to reinforce its own positions, rebut opponents’ claims and gain an advantage in framing the dynamics of the race.
Ummm, what polling data?
- Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS released the results of a wide-ranging, late-September poll in the governor’s race that showed incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage with a lead larger than the 4.9 percent margin of error, and Eliot Cutler with more support than he’s registered in other polls released in the past six months. Pan Atlantic’s findings, which were based on telephone surveys of 400 voters, were similar to what the firm found in its previous poll in April: LePage, 39.3 percent; Michaud, 33.6 percent; Cutler, 19.5 percent; Undecided: 7.8 percent.
- The Michaud campaign immediately characterized the poll as an outlier — which according to the numbers, it is — and released partial results of internal polling data from a survey conducted earlier this week. Media don’t typically report on internal polls and campaigns don’t often release them, but here it is: Michaud, 41 percent; LePage, 39 percent; Cutler, 13 percent. The data did not include a sample size nor details about methodology.
- The Maine Forward PAC, which supports Michaud and is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, followed suit on Thursday morning with another poll that contradicts the Pan Atlantic results. That poll, conducted Sept. 21 through 23 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, involved 605 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4 percent: Michaud, 43 percent; LePage, 39 percent; Cutler, 15 percent; undecided, 3 percent.
- A new CBS/New York Times poll was also released Thursday. That poll, conducted monthly by an Internet-based pollster called YouGov, has been criticized for using unproven polling methodology. It sampled 1,500 Maine voters between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1: Michaud, 37 percent; LePage, 35 percent, Cutler, 10 percent; undecided, 13 percent.
So if Pan Atlantic’s numbers are so different from the other polls, why should we pay attention to them?
- Electoral purists might tell you shouldn’t pay attention and just vote for who you believe in.
- Most political operatives and pollsters agree that each poll should be considered in context with all the others. From that standpoint, most polling aggregators, such as Real Clear Politics and Huffpost Pollster, show Michaud with a slight lead over LePage and Cutler a distant third with around 13 percent. But …
- Pan Atlantic SMS has a strong reputation and was named Maine’s most accurate pollster in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 election cycles by Nate Silver, a former New York Times blogger and founder of FiveThirtyEight.com who is indisputably one of the top polling analysts in the country.
- Pan Atlantic SMS was among the first pollsters in 2010 to show the beginnings of a surge for Cutler in the final three weeks of the campaign that took his candidacy from third in a five-way race to coming within 2 percentage points of topping LePage on Election Day.
OK. What does it all mean?
- The Cutler campaign would like voters to see the Pan Atlantic poll as evidence that the independent is surging, just like he did in 2010. However, what Pan Atlantic actually shows — and what most other polls are showing — is that his support is flat or perhaps deteriorating slightly.Patrick Murphy, Pan Atlantic’s president, said that while there are no signs to date that Cutler is in fact surging, Cutler’s support is “no doubt” closer to 20 percent than it is to the 10 percent the CBS/NYT poll reports. Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara said in a written statement Thursday that Michaud’s problem isn’t Cutler; it’s Michaud, who he said “just like Libby Mitchell in 2010, can’t win an election against Paul LePage.”
- The Michaud campaign continues to argue that the governor’s race is neck-and-neck between Michaud and LePage and that Cutler has no path to victory. “Despite millions of dollars in advertising, the fundamentals of the race remain unchanged,” said Michaud adviser David Farmer on Thursday. For Michaud, that’s not good news, because none of the polling data released Thursday shows any hint of momentum for him. Though his support remains solidly in the 40 percent range, there is no indication that he is gaining significant hoped-for support from independent voters or Cutler supporters who are realizing their candidate is not viable.
- The LePage campaign was mum about the polls on Thursday, other than a fundraising email that highlighted the Pan Atlantic findings. That’s probably because overall, the new Pan Atlantic polling data looks better for LePage than it does for Michaud or Cutler. Unsurprisingly, LePage’s percentage of support in all three polls remains in the high 30s, which is where it’s been since 2010. Though the governor’s campaign insists he could beat either Cutler or Michaud head-to-head — and Pan Atlantic, in a hypothetical matchup, found it would be a razor-tight finish — the closer Cutler’s support rises to 20 percent, the more guaranteed LePage is to be re-elected. If, of course, Cutler doesn’t completely tank or take the lead.
So what’s going to happen?
- Based on what we know today, Election Day may well result in a photo finish between LePage and Michaud, which is what it’s looked like since late last year. However, there will be numerous new polls between now and then — including another from Pan Atlantic in the next week or two, according to Murphy — in which everyone will be studying what happens between Michaud and Cutler.
- People are already voting by absentee ballot. If 2010 was any indication, some 150,000 ballots out of 580,000 total votes could be cast before the polls open on Election Day. That means today’s polling data could well have an impact on the outcome.