Mainers are deeply divided over whether public welfare programs are effective in combating poverty or doing more harm than good, according to a poll conducted for the Portland Press Herald by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

The findings show that the split over welfare reflects differences between Democrats and Republicans that were on display during pitched, high-profile battles in the last legislative session over Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare reform proposals. The poll, as well as interviews with respondents, show that the governor’s efforts will resonate with many voters but can also polarize the electorate.

Another poll question suggests that the hotly debated expansion of MaineCare health coverage to low-income residents – an issue that Democrats believe will bolster their bid to unseat LePage and retain control of the Legislature – has reinforced the ideological divide between the two parties while not affecting the views of most unenrolled or independent voters.

The poll, conducted between June 12 and 18, illustrates the contrast between two issues that the parties believe will help determine who controls the Blaine House and the Legislature after the election.

Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said the poll showed that LePage’s welfare message had a captive audience, even if not all Mainers agree with it.

“He’s been very effective at making this an issue,” Smith said.

Welfare – and LePage himself – ranked second in an open response question that asked poll participants what they felt was the biggest problem facing Maine. The governor and welfare each drew 12 percent of the 620 responses of randomly selected Mainers. Jobs and the economy ranked No. 1 at 37 percent. The state budget finished third (8 percent) while education and taxes tied for fourth (6 percent). Poverty (5 percent) was ranked fifth, while health care was ranked sixth (3 percent). Thirteen percent of respondents did not know.

According to the randomized survey of landline and cellphone households, 46 percent of respondents said welfare programs do more harm than good, while another 43 percent believe the programs do more good than harm. Seven percent said welfare was neither helpful nor harmful, while another 4 percent said they didn’t know.

The survey had a sampling error of 3.9 percent.

Republicans (72 percent) were more likely to say it does more harm than good, compared to 43 percent of independents and 27 percent of Democrats.

Democrats (65 percent) are more likely to say it does more good than harm, compared to 43 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans.

The results were similarly split when respondents were asked if welfare recipients need the assistance they receive.

Forty-six percent said “most people who receive government aid to the poor need the assistance they get,” while 41 percent believe “most people who receive government aid to the poor do not need the assistance and are taking advantage of the system.” Thirteen percent either don’t know or are neutral.

Fifty-eight percent of Republicans think most recipients don’t need assistance, compared to 44 percent of independents and 24 percent of Democrats.

Seventy-one percent of Democrats think most people who receive welfare need it, followed by 41 percent of independents and 25 percent of Republicans.

Smith said the partisan split in the poll showed an ideological divide between the two parties.

“People often talk about the polarization of politics, but this is one of those issues that shows that the two parties have strong philosophical differences,” Smith said.

There is also a divide among men and women about welfare.

Forty-eight percent of women respondents said most people who receive assistance need it compared to 45 percent of men. The gender disparity was wider when asked if welfare does more harm than good. Fifty-one percent of men said programs were harmful compared to 42 percent of women. More women (49 percent) said the programs did good than men (37 percent).

Judith Levine, an associate sociology professor at Temple University specializing in poverty, said that “stereotypes about welfare recipients have convinced a lot of people that low-income parents ‘sit’ on welfare for years on end, but that has never been true even before welfare reform.”

She added: “Throughout its welfare history America has treated various groups as ‘undeserving’ of help. Right now single mothers are deemed ‘undeserving’ despite the fact that most are doing the best they can to provide for their children in difficult circumstances.”

The issue has been highly politicized both in Maine and nationally.

The partisan differences were clear in interviews with poll respondents.

Mallory McCarthy, a 53-year-old registered nurse from Brownville, said the state’s welfare programs and Medicaid – known here as MaineCare – were a disincentive to find work and created dependency on government.

“I believe that – and I know it – the more you hand people things for doing nothing, the less they’re going to strive in life to achieve something,” said McCarthy, who plans to vote for LePage in November. “Some of the people who live in my community have adjusted their living to their MaineCare money and then they work under the table. They actually live pretty well.”

Roger Sprague, 85, a retired teacher living in Belfast, said the governor was unfair to criticize welfare programs. Sprague, a registered Democrat, said Le-Page overstated welfare fraud and understated the struggle of poor Mainers.

“He thinks everyone on welfare out there is cheating,” Sprague said. “I would say 90 percent of the people on welfare need it. There are lots of people going without and living on a very small amount of money.”

He added, “He’s not willing to raise the minimum wage, which is another thing I’m disgusted about. Nobody could survive on minimum wage and everyone on minimum wage is on food stamps and so forth because their pay is so low. Some of those people work two or three jobs to try to survive and he thinks they’re all out there trying to cheat the system.”

Sprague is also unhappy that LePage vetoed several attempts by the Democratic-controlled Legislature to expand MaineCare to cover more than 60,000 low-income Mainers. His displeasure is shared by Denise Wood, a 27-year-old housekeeper in Whiting and a registered Republican. Wood said her family was personally affected by LePage’s decision to scale back eligibility for MaineCare in 2012.

“There’s a lot of people with kids who aren’t able to feed their kids because medical bills come first,” she said. “Without MaineCare, what are people going to do when they get sick?”

A plurality of 527 likely voters, 39 percent, said the governor’s veto of bills expanding MaineCare would not affect their vote in the gubernatorial election. Thirty-one percent said it would make them less likely to vote for LePage, while another 28 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for the governor. Two percent said they were unsure.

The poll shows that the issue is most important to Democrats, 56 percent of whom said they were less likely to vote for LePage. While the result isn’t shocking, operatives within the Maine Democratic Party have suggested the issue may help drive voter turnout among its members. Conversely, 52 percent of Republicans said they were more likely to support LePage because he vetoed expansion.

So far, however, the issue has not fully engaged independents, 47 percent of whom said the issue will make little difference in their vote for or against LePage. Twenty-two percent said they were now less likely to vote for the governor, while 30 percent said it makes them more likely to support him.

Thirty-eight percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats also said it would make no difference.

A plurality of respondents identifying themselves as veterans (46 percent) said the MaineCare expansion veto would make little difference in their vote, 22 percent said it made them less likely to vote for LePage, while 31 percent said it made them more likely to vote for the governor.

Expansion would have provided health coverage to nearly a quarter-million uninsured veterans nationally, including approximately 3,000 in Maine. About two-thirds of the nation’s 12.5 million non-elderly veterans are eligible for health benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The expansion debate is likely to be used by both parties to convince less politically active voters that their side was right.

Republicans have also used the Affordable Care Act and criticism of welfare to neutralize Democrats’ attempts to use Medicaid expansion as an electoral issue. During the legislative session, Republicans and the governor called Medicaid expansion “Obamacare welfare expansion.”

While there’s some speculation that the federal health care law may become less of an issue in the midterm election, national polls show that the law is still viewed unfavorably. The UNH Survey Center poll showed that a majority of Mainers (54 percent) think the law will make no difference to their families, compared 26 percent who think it will worsen their outlook and 16 percent who think it will make life better. However, 57 percent believe the health care law will increase their medical costs, 29 percent believe it won’t affect costs and 7 percent believe costs will decrease.

Because Medicaid expansion is offered through the Affordable Care Act, Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said people may link expanding eligibility in the program with their belief that the health care law will increase their medical bills.

Meanwhile, the welfare issue continues to energize LePage and Republicans. The Maine Republican Party last week launched a website that targets Democratic lawmakers in swing districts for rejecting the governor’s welfare proposals.

“Republicans are committed to reforming Maine’s welfare system because we understand the frustration that many hardworking Mainers feel when they see the welfare abuse everyday in front of their very eyes,” Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said in a statement. “We also understand that a loose welfare system breeds a culture of inter-generational dependency that weakens Maine’s economy and diverts resources from the truly needy who just want some temporary help.”