AUGUSTA – A new poll commissioned by a conservative website shows Republican Dean Scontras closing the gap with Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree in the race for Maine’s 1st District congressional seat.
The results posted on the political blog Pine Tree Politics also show Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell virtually tied in the race for the Blaine House.
Some experts expressed reservations about the accuracy of the poll, which sampled a disproportionate number of Republicans to account for an anticipated “enthusiasm gap,” which could influence the turnout of GOP voters.
Election Day is Nov. 2, just over three weeks away.
The poll shows Pingree leading Scontras 46 percent to 38 percent, with about 16 percent of respondents undecided. The Maine Center for Public Opinion, a Portland-based firm, conducted the survey.
The sample size was 346 in the 1st Congressional District and 679 statewide, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.76 percentage points, according to Pine Tree Politics. The poll took place Oct. 4 through Oct. 7.
The statewide poll showed LePage leading the five-candidate gubernatorial field with about 30 percent of respondents to Mitchell’s 29 percent. Independent candidate Eliot Cutler had support from about 11 percent of respondents, independent Shawn Moody had about 5 percent and independent Kevin Scott had about 2 percent.
About 24 percent of respondents in the poll were still undecided in the gubernatorial race.
Matt Gagnon, a Republican who works for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and runs the Pine Tree Politics blog, paid for the poll along with two colleagues at the website.
The results for the gubernatorial race are very similar to the results of a poll taken two weeks ago by Critical Insights and sponsored by MaineToday Media, which publishes The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel daily newspapers, the weekly Coastal Journal in Bath and their respective websites.
However, the new results for the 1st District show a 12-point boost for Scontras and an 8-point drop for Pingree.
“Certainly we are encouraged by what appears to be a closing gap,” Scontras said. “You can never put a ton of credence into any (poll), but certainly we are encouraged by this one.”
Scontras said that he’s observed a strong anti-incumbency sentiment from voters around the district, which mirrors national trends.
“I don’t know how pro-Scontras it is, as it is anti-incumbency,” he said. “So let’s not get confused with, ‘My message is so great, I’m closing a 20-point gap.’ This is, as anyone will tell you, this is as bizarre a year as anyone’s ever seen.”
Willy Ritch, spokesman for the Pingree campaign, said the only poll that matters is on Election Day.
“I’d say this poll is inconsistent with every other poll we’ve seen, but it’s not surprising that a poll conducted for a conservative website paints a rosier picture for a conservative candidate,” he said. “Regardless of what any of the polls show, Chellie continues to work hard every day.”
The poll, only the second for Mark Smith at the Maine Center for Public Opinion, used unusual methodology to try to reflect the likely Republican enthusiasm gap in the upcoming election.
“I wanted him to capture what a likely voter is really going to be this year,” said Gagnon, who has done contract work with both Scontras and Jason Levesque, the Republican running in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
“(Smith) looked at the primary, he looked at the 2009 referendum vote and then some previous election cycles as well, and came up with a formula that I think came out with a very good indication of who is actually going to be coming out to vote,” Gagnon said.
Smith said he used state voting records to determine how many Republicans, Democrats, Greens and unenrolled voters turned out in Maine’s 35 state Senate districts for the past two elections.
“I took an average of those two numbers from each district — from the primary and the 2009 election — and used that as an adjustment factor, essentially,” he said.
“We used that to determine if we should poll a couple more Republicans or a couple more Democrats or whatever the case might be. I took a snapshot of how many registered voters are in that district, what percentage are Republicans, Democrats and unenrolled, and used that divided into our quota for that district.”
Smith is a computer software developer. His first poll was earlier this spring, commissioned by Republican Peter Mills during the primary campaign. The poll showed Mills winning the nomination. Smith, a former Mills staffer, said he evaluated where he went wrong in that poll and is confident in his new methodology.
Two Maine political scientists were skeptical about trying to build a Republican enthusiasm gap into a poll and ending up with accurate results.
“You obviously want to take into account this Republican enthusiasm gap in this election cycle and I can understand the motivation behind that,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono. “But any time you are over-sampling a group like that intentionally, I am kind of leery of those results. It’s hard to say what’s going on here.”
Brewer said it’s hard to say if the shift in poll numbers is a result of the methodology or recent controversy surrounding Pingree.
Michael Franz, a political science professor at Bowdoin College, said the polling technique was a bit complicated and could result in skewed data.
“It’s possible, because you are making a couple of assumptions based off of previous elections about the turnout numbers for Republicans or for Democrats in certain areas of the state, that may or may not be accurate in this election,” he said. “Neither of those were general elections. So the turnout numbers are going to be a little different in a high-profile election like this.”
Smith and Gagnon declined to release the results of their poll for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race, because they said they under-sampled some key areas because of poll staffing issues.
They said they will be re-polling the 2nd District race early next week. Critical Insights and MaineToday Media will be publishing the results of their latest poll Thursday.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org