How do Mainers really feel about the politicians running for the state’s highest office this year?
There are several ways to answer that question. Obviously, you can ask voters which candidate they’ll support in the upcoming election. That question has been asked a lot in recent months, but it does little to tell you the reason behind the vote.
One could also poll the “favorability” of each candidate, but that does little to tell you why the respondent feels the way they do.
As part of our second BDN/Ipsos poll, conducted Oct. 23-29, we tried something new. Ipsos asked each respondent to answer the following open-ended question: “What one word best describes your impression of each of the following candidates?”
Roughly 1,000 people responded, and Ipsos compiled the results into word clouds — visual representations of the results that show more common responses in larger type than less common ones. A scientific survey this wasn’t, but the results were telling.
A quick note: The word clouds above and below were created using the raw data from respondents, so misspelled words are shown separately. In my counts, however, I’m including obvious misspellings in the tallies. For example, “independent” and “independant” are counted together. Similarly, I’m counting words that represent the same idea — such as “embarrassment” and “embarrassing” — together as well. We’ve also omitted vulgar responses.
On to the results.
For LePage (word cloud above), “bully” was the mostly commonly used word, with 63 respondents using it to describe the governor. “Idiot” came in second place, with 51 responses, and “embarrassment” came in third, with 36 responses.
It’s not all bad news for the governor, though: “Honest” was next, with 35 showings. But I think you could make an argument that including the four appearances of “trustworthy” or “truthful” shows that “honesty” is a more common theme than “embarrassment.” “Strong” or some variation thereof, such as “strong-minded,” appeared 19 times
For Michaud, “honest” was the runaway winner, with 66 respondents choosing that word to describe the Congressman. (That sentiment was also reflected in the 11 respondents who chose “trustworthy,” “trusted” or “truthful.”) Forty-three respondents chose “liberal” to describe Michaud, while “Liar” showed up 26 times. Another 25 respondents chose “political” or “politician.”
Eliot Cutler is best described by the word “independent” according to 55 of the poll’s respondents. But I actually don’t think it’s the most common sentiment about the independent candidates. “Smart,” and “smartest” combine for 37 while “intelligent” was used 26 times. At a combined tally of 63, I think voters are most fixated on Cutler’s mental prowess. Less positively for him, “Arrogant” and “Spoiler” are tied with 27 appearances each.
Why did the results come in the way they did? For the major-party candidates, it would be easy to say that political rhetoric has driven these word associations. The governor’s critics often cast him as an embarrassing bully, while words like “liberal” and “politician” have been thrown at Michaud as if they were bombs for months.
But this is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg situation. Sure, several of the top responses to the Democratic or Republican nominee mirror the attacks against him by the other. But maybe those attacks are used because they resonate with voters. The political parties do extensive message testing before and during the campaign, so it’s not unlikely that they pick the attacks that reflect concerns that already exist among the electorate. It’s probably a little of both.
Cutler’s are the most interesting, though.
Because Michaud ignored the independent’s candidacy for so long and LePage has reserved his barbs for Michaud, Cutler has been left largely to define himself. I think that’s probably why “independent” — and obvious word association — was so prevalent. Same story for “smart” or “intellectual,” as Cutler is pretty clearly a bright guy.
But that cuts both ways. If the frequency with which Cutler’s independence and brains are mentioned are true representations of voters’ actual opinions, untarnished by attack ads or narrative crafting by his opponents, then so too are the less flattering descriptions, such as “arrogant.”
“Spoiler” is probably the one exception to this idea, as conversation about Cutler’s effect on the race — with Democrats fearing that his candidacy could split the anti-LePage vote, thus re-electing the governor — have been one of the key hallmarks of this campaign. This week, it caught up with Cutler, who gave his supporters his blessing to vote for one of his opponents if they thought a vote on him was wasted.
Which words would you use to describe the candidates? Let’s talk about it in the comments.