Paul LePage is up, Paul LePage is down.

Eliot Cutler is gaining — no, he’s stuck in third.

Libby Mitchell’s campaign is catching on — no, she’s still playing catch-up.

Those perceptions, drawn from polls on Maine’s race for governor, show that polls are a lot like beauty — all in the eye of the beholder, subject, of course, to the beholder’s margins of error.

Each poll has its limits, chief among them the fact that it captures a moment of time. A candidate’s misstep, a new revelation or even a world event can alter the electoral landscape between the time a poll is conducted and when it’s released.

But the knowledge of polling’s limitations doesn’t stop voters, campaign workers and the candidates themselves from relying heavily on polls to influence campaign strategy. One of the first things candidates do is commission a poll to determine whether a campaign will be viable. One of the last things they want to see before Election Day dawns is the most recent poll.

The media, too, rely on polls to help shape coverage. Reporters analyze shifting poll results to determine whether a candidate’s message is resonating, who “won” a debate, or whether a scandal is likely to sink a campaign or simply blow over.

Polling is far more sophisticated than it was in its infancy, more than a half-century ago. Pollsters in the 1930s, for instance, would say the surveys clearly pointed to Republican wins, ignoring the fact that their contact lists — drawn from telephone numbers and car registrations — skewed toward the GOP-inclined wealthy.

Pollsters stopped their surveys in the 1948 presidential race a week or two before Election Day because their numbers clearly indicated that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was going to swamp President Harry Truman. They ignored the eventually decisive matter of a relatively large number of undecided voters.

Such a surprise outcome is unlikely in Maine’s gubernatorial race this year, simply because the polls have been moving around regularly. The Republican candidate, LePage, built a sizable lead this summer, then the Democrat, Mitchell, moved slightly ahead early this fall. The latest MaineToday Media poll shows LePage back ahead, but his 6 percentage point lead is within the poll’s four-point margin of error, since adding four points to Mitchell and taking four from LePage would actually put the Democrat ahead.

The biggest potential for a surprise comes from independent candidate Cutler, who has held fairly steady at about 10 percent in the MaineToday Media poll, but jumped to 21 percent in last week’s Rasmussen Reports poll.

Cutler’s internal polls show him gaining ground, said campaign spokesman Ted O’Meara, who declined to release the campaign’s numbers.

“We feel we’ve got some real significant movement now and things have started to break our way,” O’Meara said.

Cutler began polling late in the summer of 2009, gauging his name recognition — near zero at the time — and pitting various unnamed candidates against each other. For instance, those polled were asked about a lawyer with substantial government experience (Cutler) versus an “Augusta insider” (Mitchell) and a conservative Republican (LePage), O’Meara said.

Those polls, along with a survey showing that voters were concerned about the economy and jobs, convinced Cutler and his advisers that there was a place for him in the race, O’Meara said.

The campaign has continued to poll and has begun to ask about second choices. O’Meara said the polls show Cutler is the clear second choice of both LePage and Mitchell backers.

“I think it’s a very significant question, particularly when you have the two parties going after each other’s candidate so heavily with negative advertising,” O’Meara said.

If those negative ads shake loose a Mitchell or LePage voter, O’Meara said, the polls indicate they would be more inclined to move to Cutler than any other candidate — not terribly surprising given the policy differences between Mitchell and LePage.

The Mitchell campaign has released just one of its internal polls, taken from Sept. 22-24. It showed Mitchell still trailing LePage, 38-34, but went on to point out that the poll showed a drop in LePage’s numbers and a rise in Mitchell’s since a July poll.

David Laughren, Mitchell’s communications director, said the campaign isn’t likely to do more polling, given the funds available to Mitchell as a publicly financed Maine Clean Election Act candidate.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s pollster, declined to discuss the campaign’s internal polls and wouldn’t say whether another poll will be taken before Election Day.

A spokesman for Shawn Moody said that independent campaign hasn’t done any polling. Kevin Scott, another independent, said he did one poll with Pulse Opinion Research in early October that showed Mitchell with a slight lead over LePage and Scott with 8 percent of the vote. However, Scott said he left the other two independent candidates out of the survey because he wanted to see how he stacked up against the two major party candidates.

John Baughman, an associate professor of politics at Bates College, said polling techniques are in a constant state of flux and the latest voting trends suggest that late polls are likely to be fading in popularity.

The increasing use of early voting — it’s not uncommon in many Maine communities for half of the vote to be cast before Election Day — will put more reliance on polling done in September, said Baughman (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is married to a reporter for The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram).

Candidates who are leading in the polls will likely push supporters to cast ballots early, Baughman said, while those trailing will hope to convince voters to hold off, giving the candidates more time to try to win support from the undecided or those who might be wavering.

One critic of polls said the surveys still fail regularly on one key point: identifying those who actually end up casting ballots in the election.

Curtis Mildner, president of the Portland-based research firm Market Decisions, said most post-mortems on polling continue to find inaccurate assessments of likely voters, leading to inaccurate results.

Mildner said his firm now stays away from political polling “because it’s just very difficult to do well.”

He also said polls would be more helpful to the public if they were more regularly reported as a range for each candidate, reflecting the margin of error rather than a specific number.

“It’s really fun to see who’s ahead, but the results are more likely to be a range around a single point, rather than a single point,” he said.

Mildner also said pollsters should probe more, asking more questions to get a better read on why people are favoring a candidate rather than just who they say they plan to vote for.

“Asking a single question is never as useful as seeing the pieces that build toward that answer,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com