Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-day series of stories drawing on the results of a statewide poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on the major candidates and issues on the Maine ballot Nov. 6.
Angus King’s popularity with voters has taken a clear hit, but the independent former governor still holds a commanding lead in the race to become Maine’s next U.S. senator, according to a statewide poll conducted earlier this month for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
King’s lead dropped from nearly 30 percentage points in June to 22 points in September, according to the poll. While a sign that anti-King TV ads have worked, voters said in the poll and in follow-up interviews that they are not swayed by the ads. Many voters said they are simply annoyed.
The Critical Insights poll found that President Obama has expanded his lead in Maine as he has elsewhere, but that the state is going against the national grain when it comes to class politics. Obama’s lead here is strongest among higher-income voters, while Republican Mitt Romney gets his strongest support from lower-income voters.
And the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine is holding a strong lead in September, the poll found, a cushion that supporters hope will be hard to overcome as the election inevitably gets much closer.
The Critical Insights poll was conducted Sept. 12 through Sept. 16 with live telephone interviews of 618 randomly selected likely voters statewide. Results were statistically adjusted to reflect the Maine population regarding age, gender, region of residence and political affiliation. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.
The Press Herald received the poll results Sept. 20 and spent the following week analyzing them, contacting respondents, interviewing experts and developing articles and graphics based on the findings.
The poll shows:
• Fifty percent of voters surveyed said they support King, compared to 28 percent for Republican Charlie Summers and 12 percent for Democrat Cynthia Dill.
King’s lead is larger in the Critical Insights poll than in three other recent polls on Maine’s high-profile Senate race, although an independent polling analyst said the variation is reasonable and likely reflects differences between polls.
Critical Insights, for example, was the only pollster to include cellphone users in its sample, and the only one to count voters who say they are undecided but leaning toward a candidate. Without so-called leaners, for example, King’s lead in the poll is 19 points, rather than 22.
• Obama’s lead over Romney is 52 percent to 36 percent, compared to 49 percent to 35 percent in June, the poll says.
However, Obama’s lead was much less comfortable in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, 46 percent to 41 percent, the poll shows. Winning the more rural northern parts of the state would give Romney one of Maine’s four electoral votes — potentially splitting Maine’s electoral votes for the first time in 184 years.
And, unlike in the country as a whole, Obama is more popular here with higher-income voters and Romney’s strongest support is among lower-income Mainers.
• The referendum proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine leads 57 percent to 36 percent in the poll, with 7 percent saying they are undecided.
The 21-percentage point lead is almost identical to the findings of the June poll. It is a larger lead than was measured by three other recent polls, although the differences are within the polls’ margins of error.
• Both of Maine’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives hold strong leads in their races for re-election, according to the poll.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, leads Republican challenger Jon Courtney 60 percent to 29 percent, with 11 percent undecided. The 31-point lead for Pingree is 5 points larger than in the June poll.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, leads Republican challenger Kevin Raye 54 percent to 39 percent, with 8 percent undecided. The number of undecided 2nd District voters is now much smaller, the poll shows, but both candidates picked up new supporters and Michaud’s lead in mid-September is almost identical to his lead in June.
Here is a closer look at each race.
King clearly saw his lead slip as national groups spent about $2 million on ads criticizing his record as governor and private wind farm developer, part of an organized effort to put a Republican majority in the Senate.
The poll found Summers’ support to be only slightly higher than it was in June, but it also suggests he benefited from Republican efforts to split the Democratic vote by driving support from King to Dill.
One Republican-led group has even spent $359,000 on ads touting Dill, and the poll indicates that 5 percent of voters moved from King to Dill since the last survey in June. Among Democrats, King’s support dropped from 67 percent in June to 62 percent in September, while Dill’s increased from 17 percent to 25 percent.
Despite the drop in support for King, 51 percent of voters polled said criticisms in political ads and media coverage have had little or no effect on them. In interviews, voters said last week the attack ads are mostly just annoying.
“It’s awful,” said 29-year-old Jennifer James, an assistant bank manager from Shapleigh who is an independent — and undecided — voter. “They just degrade each other. It doesn’t make either side look good.”
“These political ads nowadays, it’s kind of like don’t believe anything you hear and half of what you see. It’s like they try to twist everybody’s words,” said Jeffrey Hilton, a 49-year-old Republican from Auburn who is leaning toward Angus King.
John Bernard, a retired English professor and Democrat who lives in South Portland, said he plans to vote for Dill but is worried about the Republican efforts to split the Democratic vote. “I do think she is the only progressive in the race. I don’t want to see my vote help elect Summers,” he said.
James Weymouth, a 73-year-old retired salesman from Augusta, said he is a steadfast Summers supporter, but not because of TV ads. “He’s a good man. He’s a Republican and what he believes in, I believe in.”
King’s lead in September is still substantial, even with the variation in recent polls. He has especially strong support among women (52 percent), young voters (58 percent), college graduates (58 percent) and voters with household incomes over $100,000 a year (59 percent), according to the Critical Insights poll.
Summers’ support, meanwhile, is strongest among men (34 percent) and middle-aged voters (34 percent), and he has the most support of any candidate among voters who have a high school diploma or did not complete high school (39 percent).
Despite his lead, King’s numbers could drop further because some of his support is soft, the poll suggests.
While King leads Summers overall, 50 percent to 28 percent, a larger portion of his support is in the “probably” or “leaning” categories.
Comparing only “definite” voters, King leads 32 percent to 22 percent.
Maine remains a solid pro-Obama state heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
Even as voters remain worried about the weak economy and lack of jobs, Obama’s favorability rating rose from 48 percent in June to 52 percent this month, according to the poll.
And Romney’s promises to turn around the economy have still not connected with Maine voters, according to the poll and follow-up interviews.
“(Romney) doesn’t specifically come out and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do,'” said Jeffrey Hilton, an Auburn Republican who voted for John McCain four years ago but is leaning toward Obama. “If he could convince me to vote for him, I would.”
The poll was conducted after both parties’ national conventions were over, to prevent coverage and hype from skewing the results.
Interviews were done in the days following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya and as Romney faced criticism for speaking out against diplomatic efforts to ease tensions. Fifty percent of voters said they trust Obama to do a better job handling international relations, compared to 36 percent for Romney.
Polling was completed before Romney made headlines for secretly recorded comments about the 47 percent of Americans who he said don’t pay taxes, depend on public assistance and support Obama.
Romney’s comments focused attention on the undercurrent of class warfare in the presidential race, with Democrats casting Romney as a tax-dodging millionaire and Republicans calling Obama “the food stamp president.”
The politics of class may also be at play in Maine, but in a much different way than the country as a whole.
Nationally, Obama has a 12-point lead among American voters earning less than $36,000, according to Gallup Daily tracking polls. Romney, on the other hand, has a 9-point lead among Americans earning $120,000 a year or more.
In Maine, however, Obama has a 13-point lead among voters earning $100,000 a year or more, but only a 7-point lead among voters with household incomes less than $50,000.
The relationship between income and political views in Maine is no surprise to political scientists and pollsters here.
“Lower-income respondents tend to be more rural, and in this state they tend to be more conservative,” said MaryEllen Fitzgerald of Critical Insights.
Higher-income households in Maine are concentrated in the suburban south and along the coast, where voters also tend to be more liberal.
Lower-income households are concentrated in the rural western and northern parts of the state, where the economy is especially weak and where voters tend to be more conservative.
“I feel as though Obama has not helped this country at all. I am very disheartened,” said Pamela Wilkinson, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother and Republican in the Aroostook County town of Littleton. Her family’s income is less than $50,000 a year, she said, and she and her husband are strong Romney supporters.
While wealth is closely linked to geography in Maine, it is more closely linked to racial differences in more ethnically diverse states.
In many parts of the country, lower-income households tend to be urban and minority, groups more supportive of Obama. Here, poorer households are largely rural and white, groups that support Romney.
If the poll results hold through Nov. 6, Maine could become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in a statewide referendum. (Three other states — Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — also will vote on that question Nov. 6.)
No one expects the 21-point lead to last, however. Maine has proven to be narrowly divided on gay marriage in past elections.
And, even with a strong lead, the issue is clearly dividing Maine voters along partisan, social and economic lines. The polls says:
• 81 percent of Democrats said they would vote “yes,” while 64 percent of Republicans say they would vote “no.”
• 86 percent of Obama supporters back same-sex marriage, while 75 percent of Romney supporters oppose it.
• 79 percent of King supporters back same-sex marriage, while 77 percent of Summers supporters oppose it.
• 69 percent of college graduates support the referendum, while 56 percent of people with a high school education or less oppose it.
• 77 percent of 18- to 34-year-old voters support it, while 50 percent of voters over 65 oppose it.
“I grew up traditional. That’s the way I look at it,” said 50-year-old Marc Roy, an independent voter from Biddeford who plans to vote “no.”
Eric Moynihan, a 58-year-old independent voter from Yarmouth, said he will vote “yes” on same-sex marriage and believes it will win this time because of the strong support so far.
“I’m pretty confident that gay people can have strong marriages and are strong citizens,” said Moynihan.
Michael Wingfield, a 57-year-old musician from Portland, said he will vote “yes,” too. “Gay or straight, we all have a right to marriage.”
The races for Maine’s two seats in Congress have seen little change since June, according to the poll.
That is no surprise given the low-key campaigning, especially in the 1st District. Both candidates in the 2nd District have taken their campaigns to the television airwaves, but the ads began too late for any effect on the Critical Insights poll.
Voters who participated in the poll said they haven’t paid as much attention yet to the congressonal races. Support falls closely among party lines, according to the poll.
“I am not a huge fan of Chellie Pingree. She’s just too liberal for me,” said Kathy Hodge, a Republican from Lebanon who plans to vote for Courtney.
John Bernard of South Portland, like most Democrats, is a fan. “I think she’s done well. I have a lot of respect for Chellie,” he said.
Michaud and Raye each have strong support from their parties in the 2nd District, although Michaud’s is stronger. Michaud also is supported by more than half of independent voters and 20 percent of Republicans, the poll says.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: