A statewide survey released Wednesday suggests that Gov. Paul LePage’s job approval rating has surged and that unemployment now is seen as the most important issue for Maine.

A majority of the registered voters interviewed also said they believe that the bad economy will last more than two years.

Their opinions are contained in the latest tracking survey by Critical Insights, a Portland-based research firm. Each spring and fall, Critical Insights does a comprehensive statewide public opinion survey of registered voters that covers various topics of interest to business, government and the public.

The fall survey, conducted Oct. 18-23, involved 600 telephone interviews with randomly selected registered voters. The sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Critical Insights’ survey suggests that nine months into his tenure, LePage has a job approval rating of 47 percent – 16 percentage points higher than it was in Critical Insights’ spring survey. The new survey found that 40 percent of those interviewed disapprove of his performance.

The survey, in which voters were asked to identify their political parties, suggests that 71 percent of Republicans approve of the governor’s job performance, while 62 percent of Democrats disapprove.

Men, less-educated Mainers and the youngest residents polled were more likely to approve of LePage’s performance than women, college graduates and people 35 or older, the survey reported.

“I think the governor is seen by a lot of people as being a champion of economic development,” said MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of Critical Insights. “That’s where his traction is coming from.”

The last time her firm did a survey, FitzGerald said, LePage’s job rating was lower because the governor was dealing with controversies that included his decision to have a labor mural removed from the Department of Labor headquarters in Augusta.

Brent Littlefield, who is LePage’s senior political adviser, said the new survey results don’t surprise him. Polls not involving registered voters have indicated that LePage’s approval rating is higher than 50 percent, he said.

“The Critical Insights numbers only confirm a trend of positive approval numbers for the governor,” Littlefield said in a prepared statement.

FitzGerald said that while voters’ concerns about the economy remain high, the survey uncovered an even deeper concern about unemployment.

Forty-four percent of the respondents said unemployment is the most important issue facing Maine. In the fall 2009 survey, only 11 percent identified unemployment as the most important issue. “That is a pretty significant uptick,” FitzGerald said.

She said this is the first time that unemployment has surpassed the economy as the most pressing issue.

“What that says to me is that the unemployment situation has become quite personal,” she said. “Everyone knows someone who is unemployed or are worried that a family member will lose their job.”

In a related question, voters were asked to name the economic or financial situation that will most concern them over the next six months. Lost jobs and the price of gas and utilities tied, each receiving 32 percent.

Respondents were asked how much longer they think the downturn will last: six months, one year, two years or more than two years. Forty-four percent said more than two years, while only 6 percent said six months.

“People don’t see any kind of relief in the near future,” FitzGerald said.

Regarding a question on the statewide ballot, 51 percent of voters said they will vote “yes” Nov. 8 on Question 1, a people’s veto initiative that would preserve same-day voter registration. Forty-three percent said they will vote “no,” while 6 percent remain undecided.

Survey data on November’s ballot questions proposing racinos in Biddeford and Calais and a casino in Lewiston is considered proprietary and will not be shared with the public.

FitzGerald said the rest of the survey data is available to the public. It is online at www.criticalinsights.com. The information is typically used by government agencies, retailers and trade associations.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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