October 17, 2010

Shifting polls keep candidates guessing

Events, revelations and the fickle nature of surveys put a spin on Maine's gubernatorial race.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Paul LePage is up, Paul LePage is down.

Eliot Cutler is gaining -- no, he's stuck in third.

Libby Mitchell's campaign is catching on -- no, she's still playing catch-up.

Those perceptions, drawn from polls on Maine's race for governor, show that polls are a lot like beauty -- all in the eye of the beholder, subject, of course, to the beholder's margins of error.

Each poll has its limits, chief among them the fact that it captures a moment of time. A candidate's misstep, a new revelation or even a world event can alter the electoral landscape between the time a poll is conducted and when it's released.

But the knowledge of polling's limitations doesn't stop voters, campaign workers and the candidates themselves from relying heavily on polls to influence campaign strategy. One of the first things candidates do is commission a poll to determine whether a campaign will be viable. One of the last things they want to see before Election Day dawns is the most recent poll.

The media, too, rely on polls to help shape coverage. Reporters analyze shifting poll results to determine whether a candidate's message is resonating, who "won" a debate, or whether a scandal is likely to sink a campaign or simply blow over.

Polling is far more sophisticated than it was in its infancy, more than a half-century ago. Pollsters in the 1930s, for instance, would say the surveys clearly pointed to Republican wins, ignoring the fact that their contact lists -- drawn from telephone numbers and car registrations -- skewed toward the GOP-inclined wealthy.

Pollsters stopped their surveys in the 1948 presidential race a week or two before Election Day because their numbers clearly indicated that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was going to swamp President Harry Truman. They ignored the eventually decisive matter of a relatively large number of undecided voters.

Such a surprise outcome is unlikely in Maine's gubernatorial race this year, simply because the polls have been moving around regularly. The Republican candidate, LePage, built a sizable lead this summer, then the Democrat, Mitchell, moved slightly ahead early this fall. The latest MaineToday Media poll shows LePage back ahead, but his 6 percentage point lead is within the poll's four-point margin of error, since adding four points to Mitchell and taking four from LePage would actually put the Democrat ahead.

The biggest potential for a surprise comes from independent candidate Cutler, who has held fairly steady at about 10 percent in the MaineToday Media poll, but jumped to 21 percent in last week's Rasmussen Reports poll.

Cutler's internal polls show him gaining ground, said campaign spokesman Ted O'Meara, who declined to release the campaign's numbers.

"We feel we've got some real significant movement now and things have started to break our way," O'Meara said.

Cutler began polling late in the summer of 2009, gauging his name recognition -- near zero at the time -- and pitting various unnamed candidates against each other. For instance, those polled were asked about a lawyer with substantial government experience (Cutler) versus an "Augusta insider" (Mitchell) and a conservative Republican (LePage), O'Meara said.

Those polls, along with a survey showing that voters were concerned about the economy and jobs, convinced Cutler and his advisers that there was a place for him in the race, O'Meara said.

The campaign has continued to poll and has begun to ask about second choices. O'Meara said the polls show Cutler is the clear second choice of both LePage and Mitchell backers.

"I think it's a very significant question, particularly when you have the two parties going after each other's candidate so heavily with negative advertising," O'Meara said.

(Continued on page 2)

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