The race for governor remains a statistical dead heat between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, with many Mainers saying that they plan to vote in November but are unsure for whom.
The uncertainty, captured in a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, reflects a somewhat disengaged electorate and the likelihood that many voters will be watching to see whether independent candidate Eliot Cutler or Michaud has the better chance to beat LePage in November. Several respondents indicated in interviews with the Telegram that they would watch the polls this fall and vote strategically.
Meanwhile, LePage’s base of support appears solid, leaving him in a good position should Michaud falter.
The Democrat presently has a four-point margin over LePage, leading the governor 40 percent to 36 percent in a landline and cellphone survey of 527 likely voters between June 12 and 18. Cutler lags in third place, with 15 percent of respondents saying they’d vote for him if the election were held today. Another 7 percent said they were undecided. Michaud’s lead is within the 4.3 percent margin of error.
Michaud’s strength – and LePage’s weakness – is among female voters, a bloc that national Democrats hope to mobilize to counter the low turnouts that normally characterize midterm elections.
Michaud is also drawing support from respondents who voted for Cutler during the independent’s second-place finish in 2010. The latter finding suggests that Democrats who bailed on Libby Mitchell as her campaign cratered in the final weeks of the 2010 election are standing with Michaud – at least for now.
LePage, meanwhile, has the edge among voters in the 2nd Congressional District, which Michaud has represented for six consecutive terms. The governor’s strength in the poll is among male respondents, 45 percent of whom said they’d vote for him. Michaud has 33 percent support among men, while Cutler has 16 percent.
Michaud and LePage are splitting independent voters, 35 percent to 33 percent, respectively. Cutler’s support is nearly divided among Democrats (16 percent), independents (16 percent) and Republicans (14 percent).
Cutler’s challenge lies in convincing anti-LePage respondents that he can win, even with Michaud in the race.
According to the poll, 7 percent think Cutler can win the Blaine House, even though the same survey shows that he does slightly better than Michaud in a one-on-one match-up with LePage. Either Michaud or Cutler would defeat the governor in a two-way race, according to respondents. Cutler’s victory margin is 12 points, while Michaud’s is seven.
Forty-three percent of respondents said Michaud will win, while 31 percent thought LePage will. Another 19 percent said they were unsure.
UNH Survey Center Director Andrew Smith said respondents’ opinions about who will win can be a more accurate forecast than questions about their preferred choice, an observation backed by a 2012 study by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. The study has led respected polling firms to add the predictive question to their electoral surveys.
The results might seem ominous for Cutler, whose campaign has not gained in other polls and is far behind both his rivals in the money race. However, several people who participated in the poll told the Telegram that they weren’t ruling out a vote for the independent if the dynamics of the race suddenly changed in his favor.
GOVERNOR HOLDING HIS OWN
The ambivalence is reflected in the poll. Nearly half of the respondents said they had considered all of the gubernatorial candidates but were still trying to decide whom to vote for in November.
Matthew Howe, 53, owns a catering business in Scarborough. The registered Democrat said he thinks either Michaud or Cutler would be a good governor, but his “number one criterion” was the candidate who can unseat LePage. His objections to the governor are numerous.
“It’s hard to know where to begin,” Howe said. “Obviously I’m a Democrat and I’m inclined to not agree with his platform in general. In the case of Gov. LePage it’s gone beyond politics and political perspective to the point where I think he’s shown a lot of disrespect for the office and for the people of Maine. He’s really become an embarrassment.”
Nonetheless, the poll shows that the Republican governor continues to hold his own. According to some interviewed by the Telegram, LePage’s style of governing is not a liability, but an asset.
Mallory McCarthy, a 53-year-old registered nurse from Brownville, said she voted for LePage in 2010 and will do so again this year. She said the governor’s small-government platform and his plain-spoken style resonate.
“I don’t like the politician-speak,” she said. “It means nothing and as far as I’m concerned it’s all a bunch of lies. LePage will tell you exactly what he’s thinking, exactly what he’s going to do, and that’s exactly what he does.”
She added, “I honestly believe he’s not there for his own benefit.”
Glen Ouellette is a 44-year-old construction worker from Auburn. Ouellette said that LePage represents the values of a Republican Party too often abandoned by other politicians.
He calls Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins a liberal. LePage, he said, is the right kind of Republican.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a true conservative in the Blaine House,” he said. “I like that he’s trying to reform welfare. He’s not getting much done, but he’s getting fought every step of the way (by the Democratic-controlled Legislature).”
The governor’s support appears solid, but it doesn’t appear to be increasing, according to the poll.
Dorothy Beisaw, 76, of Wilton has been a registered Republican since it was legal for her to vote. She backed LePage in 2010, but she said she’s voting for Cutler this year.
“I have somewhat regretted not voting for (Cutler) the last time,” she said. “I love Paul LePage. I love what he’s trying to do, but he should have trusted aides that he allows to edit him.”
She added, “I agree with most of his goals, but you can’t butt heads with everybody.”
JOB APPROVAL RATING
According to the poll, the governor’s job approval rating is worse than President Obama’s, with 52 percent of respondents disapproving of his performance, including 51 percent of independents (Obama’s disapproval rating is 49 percent in the poll). Smith, in his poll analysis, noted, “Historically, governors (and presidents) with job approval ratings of less than 46 percent do not get re-elected.”
Among the 41 percent of respondents who approve of LePage, 75 percent were Republicans.
Sixty-one percent of women respondents disapprove of the job he has done. He is strong among male respondents, 50 percent of whom have a favorable view of his term so far.
The governor’s gender disparity is also reflected among respondents who said they plan to vote in the election. Forty-seven percent of women respondents said they would vote for Michaud compared to 27 percent for the governor and 15 percent for Cutler.
Michaud has a 57 percent favorable rating among women and a 54 percent rating among all respondents. Cutler has attempted to drive a wedge in Michaud’s support among women by criticizing the Democrat’s self-described evolution on abortion. The poll shows the strategy has not had much impact, if any. While a plurality of women respondents have a favorable view of Cutler, the same percentage said they did not know him. Overall, Cutler has a favorable rating of 33 percent, while 27 percent view him unfavorably and 29 percent said they don’t know him.
Nationally, Democrats are courting support among women, a voting bloc that helped deliver the party the presidency in 2008 and 2012 and one it hopes will prevent the wave of defeats it suffered during the 2010 midterm. Unlike young adults and minorities, who constitute two of the three voter blocs that traditionally support Democrats, women are more likely to turn out in midterm elections.
Voters age 50 and older are also reliable, or reflex, voters, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. The same bloc also comprises a significant portion of LePage’s base of support. Forty-three percent of the likely voters age 50 or older in the poll had a favorable view of the governor. Michaud also drew support among respondents 50 or older. An average of 55 percent have a favorable view of the Democrat, while 43 percent of those who said they may vote for him fell into the same age bracket. An average of 12 percent of the respondents who said they would vote for Cutler were 50 or older.
Fifty-four percent of the 2010 Cutler voters responding to the poll said they planned to support Michaud this year. Thirty-seven percent of respondents who said they voted for Cutler in 2010 said they planned to vote for him again. By contrast, 78 percent of 2010 LePage voters in the poll said they were supporting the governor again (13 percent said they were voting for Michaud, 6 percent said they were voting for Cutler).
AMBIVALENT ABOUT CHALLENGERS
Nonetheless, Michaud has struggled to add significant distance between himself and LePage since the campaign began nearly a year ago.
While several poll respondents indicated that they would not vote for Cutler if Michaud wasn’t in the race, others interviewed by the Telegram said they were ambivalent about LePage’s two challengers, indifferent or simply siding with the candidate who will unseat the governor.
Josh Katz, 62, of Brunswick is a retired hydrogeologist for the Maine Department of Transportation. He said he’s an independent at heart, but registers as a Democrat so he can vote in primary elections.
He voted “with his heart” and supported Cutler in 2010, he said. This time, however, the independent will have to show a significant lead in the polls to get his vote.
“My primary motivation that will inform my vote is to see LePage defeated. I disagree with most of what he stands for,” Katz said.
He added that Cutler may be more of a leader than Michaud, but he’s happy with the congressman.
“Mike’s doing a good job, but he’s not shaking things up the way Cutler would,” he said.
Michaud’s support so far appears more steady than Mitchell’s was in 2010. A June 10, 2010, Rasmussen poll showed the Democrat was already behind the front runner LePage by seven points with 36 percent support. The Democrat’s decline was steep and steady from there, with all but one poll in October showing her trailing Le- Page by double digits until Cutler began his surge to second place.
The UNH Survey Center is an academic and public opinion survey research institute that conducts between 40 and 50 surveys every year for a range of for-profit and nonprofit clients. Its media clients have included CNN and Fox News, The Boston Globe and New Hampshire Public Radio. It has operated since 1976 and polled election races in the Granite State and the presidential primary.