If recent polling is to be believed, the narrative in the governor’s race has shifted, just as many have predicted for months that it would.
The thing is, the shift isn’t what some had expected. If there was to be a shift, according to those who have seen Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler as competing for the same voters, it was to be toward one of the challengers, not Gov. Paul LePage, who many including myself have often said has and will have the same support he had on Election Day four years ago: about 39 percent.
Then came some new poll data in the past few weeks that showed signs of melting enthusiasm for Michaud and no movement at all for Cutler. That trend continued in new data from a Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald poll released over the weekend that suggests that instead of melting, a major chunk of Michaud support has broken away.
The poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, shows LePage with 45 percent support, Michaud with 35 percent and Cutler at 16 percent. Only 4 percent of the survey’s respondents said they were undecided, which is a tiny number even days before the election. Even with the 3.8 percent margin of error, this poll and other recent ones have unmistakably shown LePage gaining momentum as Michaud treads water or maybe, sinks.
Recent poll results also show no ripple — let alone a surge — for Cutler, but enough support for him to basically ensure that neither LePage or Michaud will win 50 percent of the total vote. That will continue Maine’s streak of electing governors who garner less than half the votes cast — which, other than Angus King’s re-election in 1998, dates to 1982.
Individual polling results are worth little on their own. Lots of factors can skew results and different polling methods yield strikingly different results. The way the questions are worded is crucial and oftentimes, the deeper results on factors such as job performance and likability are more telling than the “who would you vote for if the election were today” data.
Most important, polls are most valuable when they’re viewed in aggregate.
Looking from today into the past, it appears to be a tight two-way race with Cutler locked hopelessly — if not hopelessly, then within your odds of winning the lottery of hopelessly — in third. As the LePage campaign emphasizes, the only poll that matters is the one voters take on Election Day. But it is worth watching the results of polls that are due to be released in the next few days to see if the PPH poll is the first to reflect a LePage surge or if it is a fluke.
If you think the fact I write about polls makes me some kind of polling expert, you’re wrong. And if you think “polling experts” are always right, you’re wrong again. That said, let’s consider the Press Herald’s poll in terms of what its release could mean for the election. After all, now is the time when polling data becomes less of a “snapshot in time” and more of a factor in terms of how their very existence at this late stage could sway voters.
I do not doubt that LePage’s lead is authentic. He has run an effective campaign that focused on his accomplishments — tax cuts, regulatory reform, welfare reform — and explained away his weaknesses, such as making embarrassing and probably harmful statements that end up on the national stage. The accomplishments — separated from what opponents would argue are negative consequences — appear considerable, especially when they’re listed together in television commercials and voiced by the governor himself during the recent debates in which he generally outperformed Michaud in making direct appeals to voters.
At the same time, LePage’s campaign has launched surgical strikes against Michaud, trying to erode voters’ positive impressions of the Democrat by portraying him as a “liar” or as beholden to “liberal” special interests. The PPH poll gives some evidence that the strategy is working.
LePage’s party-level supporters, along with Cutler, have waged months of attacks on Michaud that have dismissed his congressional and legislative careers — both of which include honorable and noteworthy accomplishments no matter what anyone tells you — and painted him as someone who is unfit for the governor’s office.
Conversely, Democrats’ attacks have done nothing to erode LePage’s base of support and seem to have bounced off voters who had not made up their minds months, if not years, ago to vote against the Republican incumbent.
The specter of Cutler’s late-stage surge to within 2 percentage points of victory in 2010 looms huge. Tens of thousands of voters have been watching for signs of a repeat, but it’s not there. Democrats have seized on that stagnation in the polls in an effort to convince voters who don’t like LePage that Michaud is the only candidate who can unseat him.
But it seems that the “pox on both houses” voters who are fed up with government in general are leaning toward LePage rather than Cutler.
Both Michaud and Cutler have been saying more loudly for the past week or two that he is the only one who can beat LePage, which indicates they also see LePage as the frontrunner. Right now, if anyone looks to have a chance it’s Michaud, though LePage polling 10 points up at this late state undoubtedly casts serious doubt on that for thousands of Mainers.
It also raises questions about the assumption that this election is all about the anti-LePage vote. Michaud’s apparent lack of traction and Cutler’s steady polling in the 15-20 percent range indicate that voters are looking for not simply a candidate who can beat LePage, but one who presents a better alternative as governor.
Unless Cutler surges well past 20 percent, his arguments that he is in position to win lack credibility. If there’s any truth to the notion that anyone-but-LePage voters constitute the majority of the electorate, a shift toward Michaud or Cutler is in the offing. Michaud is much stronger than Democrat Libby Mitchell was four years ago in both the polls and fundraising, which points if anything to a possible late-day surge for Michaud. But the PPH poll shows no indication of that happening yet.