A private poll conducted last week that asked for opinions on possible candidates in Portland’s next mayoral race suggests Ethan Strimling, a political analyst who runs a local nonprofit, may have an edge on incumbent Michael Brennan.

But conclusions on where three potential candidates rank against one another are difficult to draw because the poll sponsors refused to release all the results.

What is apparent is that interest is growing in the race, even though no one has said they are definitely running, and nomination papers won’t even be available until June 30.

Bob Baldacci, a principal of the Portland-based Baldacci Group, which owns communications and other businesses, and several other Greater Portland businesspeople hired Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina, to conduct the poll. The automated poll, which surveyed 507 Portland voters from April 19-21, included questions on city economic issues as well as the mayoral race.

Private polling is considered less reliable than public polling because sponsors tend to release results only when they favor their interests. Partial poll results were released to the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday morning after it was first reported on WGAN.

The survey had Strimling with an 8-point edge in a hypothetical, head-to-head matchup against Brennan, the city’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly a century. Strimling lost to Brennan by 1,900 votes in the 2011 race.

The survey also tested support for former City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who represented District 4 for nearly 30 years. Baldacci said Leeman did not fare well in a three-way race or head-to-head matchup with either of the other candidates, but declined to provide numbers to back up that claim – a move that prompted criticism from Leeman.

“Smells like political shenanigans!” Leeman said in an email. “It is hard to draw any conclusions given the source of the survey, lack of detail, and the obvious filtered release of information that represents a particular viewpoint.”

mirroring ‘ranked choice’ voting

Numbers for a three-way race between Brennan, Strimling and Leeman, or any head-to-head race involving Leeman, were not released.

The poll relies on the “ranked-choice” voting system adopted by Portland in 2011. Voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a clear majority, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated, and the candidate’s second-choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate emerges with a clear majority.

According to a memo from the pollster, if Leeman’s votes were redistributed to her voters’ second choices, Strimling’s lead over Brennan would narrow to 4 points, which is within the poll’s 4.3 percentage point margin of error. However, if Strimling’s votes were redistributed, Leeman would lose to Brennan by 14 points.

The polling memo does not say what would happen if Brennan’s second-choice votes are redistributed.

In 2011, there were 15 candidates on Portland’s ballot. Brennan beat Strimling after longtime City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones was eliminated and his second-place votes redistributed.

Baldacci, whose company worked on Strimling’s 2011 mayoral campaign, said the “real story” of the poll was Strimling’s ability to beat Brennan. Baldacci originally said that the poll results would not be made public, but he changed his mind.

“After seeing the results we thought it was important for these numbers to get out there,” Baldacci said.

Baldacci stressed the poll was not associated with any of his businesses, including a communications firm that Strimling hired during his 2011 bid for mayor. Strimling has said he did not pay for or commission the poll, but didn’t respond to a question about whether he was involved in drafting the poll questions or knew about the poll beforehand.

who will take the plunge?

The poll found both Strimling and Brennan are viewed favorably by the public. Brennan’s favorability was polled at 55 percent, Strimling’s at 59 percent. Leeman’s favorability numbers were not released, but the pollster’s memo said they were “similar to Brennan’s.”

Leeman has said she is “strongly considering” running, while Brennan has said he will decide in the coming weeks.

Strimling, who co-writes a column and a blog for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and appears regularly on WCSH6, said he still has no plans to run.

“It obviously shows that both Mike and I have strong reputations in Portland, but with six months before November, I’m not sure it says much more,” Strimling said in an email. “I will keep listening, but again, I have no plans to run.”

Leeman questioned the integrity of the poll, which was conducted by a Strimling ally, but found one clear message in the numbers.

“Regardless, one thing is clear, the numbers reflect dissatisfaction with the current leadership or lack of, and an obvious disconnect with the residents regarding a vision and city priorities,” Leeman said.

The poll also asked questions about efforts to raise the minimum wage in Portland, a proposed rezoning of the Portland Company complex and economic development. Those questions were sponsored by other groups, including Soul of Portland, which opposes the Portland Company proposal. Those results were not included in Wednesday’s release.

The newspaper asked Soul of Portland organizer Nini McManamy if the group would release the poll results. She said in an email that the group is “very encouraged” by them.

The Portland Green Independent Committee sponsored several questions about raising the minimum wage, as the group is collecting signatures for November ballot question to create a $15 minimum wage in Portland by 2019.

“We’re still analyzing the results,” Chairman Tom MacMillan said. “We’re going to release (the results) next week.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: randybillings