A dramatic shift appears to have occurred among voters in Maine’s gubernatorial race and in one congressional contest, according to a new independent poll released Thursday.

Independent Eliot Cutler moved up substantially to a statistical second-place tie with Democrat Libby Mitchell, who lost support compared with earlier polls. Cutler’s support, which had been hovering around 11 percent, increased to 19 percent in the latest poll. Mitchell had 20 percent.

The poll had Republican Paul LePage with a 12 percentage point lead at 32 percent.

In Maine’s 1st Congressional District race, Republican Dean Scontras has pulled into a statistical dead heat with Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, the new poll indicates. That differs sharply from previous polls that had Pingree with solid leads, despite a tightening of the race this month.

Critical Insights Inc., a Portland-based research firm, conducted its Fall 2010 Tracking Survey of Maine residents Oct. 13-17. The poll is based on 600 telephone interviews with registered voters.

The company does an independent tracking poll twice a year to measure Mainers’ attitudes on the economy and other issues. Its poll is different from The Maine Poll, being done by Critical Insights for MaineToday Media.

Five percent of respondents to the latest poll said they would vote for independent Shawn Moody in the governor’s race and 1 percent said they would vote for independent Kevin Scott. Twenty-one percent remain undecided, according to the poll, which asked people who they would vote for if the election were held the next day.

Mitchell and Cutler are statistically tied in second place because Mitchell’s lead is within the poll’s margin of error — plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. That means that if the poll were repeated 100 times, in 95 cases the results would be within 4 percentage points of those reported.

It’s the first independent poll to put Cutler even with Mitchell. Earlier in the week the Cutler campaign released its own internal survey which had Cutler polling around 26 percent and Mitchell at 27 percent.

A poll released earlier this week by Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland had 33 percent supporting LePage, 28 percent supporting Mitchell and 14 percent supporting Cutler.

The Maine Poll done last week by Critical Insights had Cutler’s support among likely voters at about 11 percent.

“(The new poll) doesn’t reflect anything we’re seeing anywhere else,” said David Loughran, spokesman for Mitchell, adding that other polls have surveyed likely voters and not simply those who are registered. “Every poll up to this point has had a two-person race.”

The Cutler campaign said its own polling shows Cutler and Mitchell much closer to LePage.

“Each poll is a little different and a snapshot in time,” said Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s spokesman. “But I think taking them all together, one consistent theme that is emerging is that Eliot’s campaign is really taking off.”

The numbers also were welcomed by the LePage campaign. “We’re pleased that his base of support seems to be really strong,” said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for LePage.

With LePage holding at about 32 percent, experts are watching the second- and third-place candidates to see if either one might gain enough momentum to challenge him.

“I think LePage’s support is pretty steady,” said Kenneth Palmer, political science professor emeritus at the University of Maine. “I think it’s more going to be a question of what’s going to happen with Libby Mitchell and Eliot Cutler.”

The latest poll is bad news for Mitchell, said Michael Franz, a political scientist at Bowdoin College.

“Those numbers would suggest that Cutler is starting to show the Mitchell supporters that he’s a better option,” Franz said.

Maine’s gubernatorial race is still unusually fluid less than two weeks before Election Day, experts said, with a very large percentage of undecided voters.

“I can’t recall having seen that before,” said MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of Critical Insights, who believes that could help an independent candidate.

In fact, the undecided number was so high at such a late stage that one political scientist, L. Sandy Maisel of Colby College, said he doesn’t trust the numbers.

The poll also showed a dramatic tightening of the 1st District congressional race.

Pingree supporters totaled 45 percent while Scontras totaled 40 percent, with 13 percent undecided. Because the margin of error on that question is 5.7 percentage points, the race is statistically even, according to the poll. Last week’s Maine Poll had Pingree with 48 percent and Scontras with 33 percent.

“I can’t get caught looking at the scoreboard,” Scontras said Thursday. “Of course, we’re encouraged.”

Pingree’s spokesman, Willy Ritch, said the latest poll doesn’t worry or surprise him.

“Polls have been a little bit all over the place, and to a certain extent that’s really what we expected to see,” he said. “It’s a sort of unsettled climate out there.”

In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud had a clear lead over Republican Jason Levesque, 49 percent to 30 percent, the tracking poll indicated. The margin of error is 5.7 percentage points.

A ballot proposal for the state to borrow $5 million to increase access to dental care has strong support, with 50 percent saying they would vote “yes” and 37 percent saying they would vote “no,” according to the poll. The other 13 percent said they didn’t know.

The tracking poll also suggested that Mainers are more pessimistic about the economy than they were six months ago.

“We still have one-third of people in the state concerned that in the next six months somebody in the household will be out of work,” FitzGerald said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com