The race for governor has tightened. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has a slight but statistically insignificant lead over Republican Gov. Paul LePage with 37 days remaining before Election Day, according to a new poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
The poll, which surveyed 482 likely voters on landlines and cellphones from Sept. 18 to 25, shows Michaud leading LePage 40 percent to 38 percent, with independent Eliot Cutler drawing 12 percent.
Michaud’s 2-point lead is less than the 4-point advantage he had in the newspaper’s last poll, conducted June 12 to 18. His June lead and the new margin are both within the polls’ 4.4 percent margins of error.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
The poll and interviews with poll respondents suggest that the governor’s best hope for re-election still hinges on dividing the opposition vote between Michaud and Cutler.
It’s working. Michaud benefits from the anti-LePage vote, but he has not pulled away from the governor even as support for Cutler has stagnated. In addition, in a sharp reversal from the Press Herald poll conducted in June, Michaud is now virtually tied with LePage when respondents are asked to predict who will win the race. Ten percent of voters said they were undecided about the race, although the electorate is paying more attention to the race. Forty-nine percent said they have definitely decided whom they will vote for, 21 percent said they are leaning toward a candidate, and 30 percent are still trying to decide.
Meanwhile, welfare reform, a central issue of LePage’s platform, is gaining support from independents, who constitute most of Maine’s registered voters. However, LePage has lost support with older voters, a key demographic in the midterm election.
Michaud’s lead did not change when the choices of voters who were leaning toward a candidate were included in the results. Michaud led LePage 41 percent to 39 percent, while Cutler improved to 14 percent. In June, Michaud’s lead with leaning respondents was 5 points, 1 point outside the margin of error.
Cutler, who polled at 15 percent in June, continued to perform slightly better than Michaud in a head-to-head matchup with LePage. However, just as in June, few people think he can win the three-way contest.
But Michaud has fallen furthest in the who-will-win question, the poll results suggest.
When respondents were asked who will win in November, 38 percent said LePage, 37 percent Michaud and 5 percent Cutler. In June, 43 percent said Michaud would win compared to 31 percent for LePage and 7 percent for Cutler.
Polling experts and studies have concluded that opinions about who will win can be a more accurate forecast than questions about voters’ preferred choice.
UNH Survey Center Director Andrew Smith said he was not surprised the race has tightened between Michaud and LePage.
Smith said Michaud was benefiting from the anti-LePage vote, but he may need more than opposition to the governor if he’s going to win.
“People are really starting to pay attention,” Smith said. “LePage, now that he’s campaigning, is fighting against the criticisms that he’s had, and I think it’s helping him among independent voters. The other thing LePage has to count on is Eliot Cutler staying in the race. The division within the Democratic Party is what’s keeping LePage in the race.”
ANTI-LEPAGE VOTE iS KEY
Seventy-two percent of respondents said they planned to vote in the election. The field of undecided voters has decreased by 28 percentage points since June, but interviews with poll participants suggest the contest could still hinge on the strategic voting of anti-LePage voters.
Susan Silverio, 65, of Lincolnville said she plans to vote for Cutler, citing his endorsement by independent U.S. Sen. Angus King. However, she said, if Cutler can’t win, she’ll switch her vote to Michaud to ensure Le- Page doesn’t earn a second term.
“Unfortunately I’ll have to vote for somebody that can win,” she said. “It’s a terrible guessing game.”
The poll contains good and bad news for all three major candidates.
Smith said Michaud and Democrats are working against a national tide that may also affect down-ticket candidates for the Maine Legislature: President Obama is unpopular.
The poll showed that 51 percent of respondents disapproved of the president’s job performance, 44 percent approved and 4 percent were undecided. The result is in line with national tracking polls. An average published by the website RealClearPolitics showed 53 percent of Americans disapproved of Obama’s job performance while 42 percent approved.
LePage remains largely unpopular with Mainers and in the danger zone for most incumbent governors. Smith’s analysis noted that governors with job approval ratings of less than 46 percent don’t get re-elected. However, LePage’s chances are better because there are three candidates. In addition, the governor’s approval rating has improved since June. Currently, 44 percent of Maine residents approve of the job LePage is doing as governor, while 46 percent disapprove and 10 percent are neutral or don’t know enough to say. In June, 41 percent approved of the job he was doing and 52 percent disapproved.
Charlie Tanner, 66, of Portland, one of the poll participants, said he plans to vote for LePage even though he also likes Michaud.
“I don’t like much about (Le- Page), but I just feel like we needed to go in the direction of smaller government, less spending and not giving stuff away,” Tanner said. “I like his stand on illegal immigrants.”
He added: “He is the anti-politician. He certainly isn’t glib. I’m not going to be too disappointed if he loses. … I just think he should have a chance to finish what he started.”
Tanner’s support for the governor goes against the majority of voters age 50 and older. According to the poll, over 54 percent of voters 50 and older have an unfavorable view of the governor. That is an increase from June, when 49 percent of the same age group had an unfavorable view of him.
WELFARE A CRITICAL ISSUE
The dip in support may explain why LePage’s campaign is fiercely pushing back against backlash from a statement he issued in June that seemed to classify Social Security as a form of welfare.
LePage continues to carve more support out of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which Michaud has represented for six terms in Congress. Voters still have a favorable view of Michaud, but the governor wins the more conservative district, 54 percent to 40 percent, in a head-to-head contest.
The issue of welfare is also benefiting LePage and potentially Republicans running for the Legislature. Fifty percent of voters said welfare does more harm than good, while 39 percent said the opposite. Republicans (76 percent) and independents (51 percent) are more likely to say it does more harm, while Democrats (67 percent) are more likely to say it does more good.
The issue became more complicated when voters were asked whether most welfare recipients need the assistance they receive. Forty-six percent said yes, 38 percent said no, 10 percent said neither, and 5 percent said they didn’t know. Republicans (48 percent) and independents (48 percent) were more likely to think most people don’t need assistance, while most Democrats (71 percent) said they think most people need the assistance they receive.
Audrey Murphy, 58, an independent from Auburn, said she wouldn’t vote for LePage but supports his changes to the welfare system.
“I’m not impressed with him, but I do like some of the things he’s done with welfare reform,” she said. “His ads say he’s not a politician, but he still has to have some (political correctness) about him.”
Welfare is near the top of the list of Ryan Small’s concerns.
“He’s putting an end to all this free living for all these welfare recipients,” Small, 66, of Casco said of LePage. “He’s trying to put a limit on it so it doesn’t get out of hand. He’s controversial, there’s no question about that, but he doesn’t mince his words. He calls a spade a spade.”
MICHAUD’S SUPPORT STEADY
Michaud’s support has not changed since the Telegram polled the race in June. The Democrat benefits from many voters’ opposition to LePage. The poll shows that women, younger voters and voters 50 and older either oppose the governor or support Michaud.
Voters in the poll preferred Michaud to LePage 50 percent to 44 percent in a head-to-head matchup, with 56 percent of women preferring the Democrat compared to 37 percent for the governor.
Michaud’s strength, however, is a weakness in a midterm election. The Maine Democratic Party and allied interest groups have invested in sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations designed to get women and younger voters to the polls. Michaud’s victory may depend on those operations, but the campaign may have to do more to energize Democrats, Smith said.
Michaud’s favorability remains relatively unchanged since June, dipping from 54 percent to 53 percent. Twenty-nine percent of voters had an unfavorable view of him, while 9 percent were neutral. His favorability and the anti-LePage vote may be the Democrats’ biggest assets.
Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College and one of the leading campaign finance experts in the country, said it was likely that outside groups will continue targeting Michaud to drive down his favorability. Interest groups have spent more than $4.2 million on the governor’s race and Michaud has been the target of nearly $1 million in opposition advertising, nearly the same as LePage.
“One of the ways for LePage to win is to chip away at Michaud and increase his unfavorable numbers a little bit,” Corrado said. “You’re starting to see that in the waves of contrast ads by the Republican Governors Association.”
Michaud and Democratic legislative candidates could also benefit from the minimum wage issue. Sixty percent of voters said they strongly favored raising the minimum wage compared to 16 percent who strongly opposed it.
Daniel Clement, 53, of Orland isn’t completely sure whether he’ll vote for Cutler or Michaud. It won’t be LePage, who he said has been “patting himself on the back” for rejecting Medicaid expansion.
“You’re keeping sick people from going to the doctor, and you’re happy about that,” Clement said. “(LePage) is obviously not well. This man, he’s got no leg to stand on. He’s just a red-faced, spittle-spewing – oh, never mind, I’m done.”
CUTLER FACES STEEP CLIMB
Cutler’s campaign has benefited from the endorsement from King and a change in campaign finance rules that allow the independent to draw more donations. However, the poll shows that those factors have not led to additional support. Cutler does better than Michaud in a head-to-head with LePage, with 52 percent of voters favoring him to 41 percent for LePage.
Cutler’s support is derived from Democrats (14 percent), independents (22 percent) and Republicans (11 percent). However, LePage does the best of the three candidates with independent voters. Forty-four percent support the governor, 27 percent support Michaud and 22 percent support Cutler.
Cutler’s biggest struggle is that many people don’t think he can win. Even among those who support him, several people interviewed by a reporter said they would switch their vote if the independent doesn’t have a surge like he did when he finished second to LePage in 2010. Some poll participants, however, said they will stick with Cutler no matter what.
Murphy, the independent from Auburn, said she’d vote for Cutler “just to make a point.”
Smith said he expected Cutler may lose some support if people think he’s destined for a distant third place. However, some, like Murphy, could stay with him.
“A wasted vote may be somebody’s important ideological statement,” Smith said.