Republican Paul LePage has a slim lead over Democrat Mike Michaud in the Maine governor's race. That's according to the latest Pan Atlantic SMS Omnibus Poll, out today. The survey also shows independent candidate Eliot Cutler running nearly 20 points behind both candidates. Cutler's campaign dismissed the numbers, saying it's way too early in the political season to tell where things will end up in November. Both the LePage and Michaud campaigns, though, say the poll holds clues as to why their candidate will ultimately win.
Interviewers with Pan Atlantic SMS Group called a randomly-selected sample of 400 Maine residents between March 31 and April 5. A slim majority of likely voters, 45%, say the state is headed in the wrong direction. Jobs and the economy ranked as the most important issue facing the state. And the governor's race? Let's just say that no one is likely to run away with it anytime soon.
"The margin of error on the total sample is plus or minus 4.9%, it is a dead heat between them right now," said Patrick Murphy, who runs Pan Atlantic SMS Group.
Murphy said Republican Gov. Paul LePage leads Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud by 38.6% to 37.3%, well within that margin of error. Eliot Cutler is in third place, with about 20% support. Less than 4% of voters say they're undecided.
"I think the governor is operating in a fairly narrow margin. He's got that, probably, pretty solid 37, maybe to 39 percent," Murphy said. "But when you look at his favorability numbers, he's running net negative on favorability by 7 points. When you look at his job ratings, again he's running a small negative of three or four points."
Murphy said these kinds of numbers will make it a challenge for LePage to eke out the few extra percentage points he may need to win re-election.
"However, the wild card, really, in the race, is the independent candidate, Eliot Cutler," Murphy said. "And a lot depends on what happens to his candidacy between now and the end of September."
Cutler, of course, ran four years ago, narrowly losing to LePage. Many more people know who he is this time around. And right now, at least in this early poll, he's trailing by nearly 20 points.
"We've said, all along, that early polls don't mean a lot," said Crystal Canney, Cutler's communications director. Canney said Cutler is the only candidate right now traveling regularly to all parts of the state and is determined to press forward with his campaign.
"We're seven months away and what we're seeing is steady growth," Canney said. "And we're going to continue to work like we're one week from the election. We're going to continue to put our ideas that benefit Maine people out there, and not the parties."
Canney said lots of voters in Maine just aren't paying attention to the governor's race yet. But the campaign that poses the most immediate threat to Cutler's effort doesn't buy that theory.
"This is a two-way race between Congressman Michaud and Gov. LePage. And it's going to be a tight race. But it's a race we are 100% confident in our ability to win," said Lizzy Reinholt, who heads up communications for Mike Michaud.
Reinholt said the campaign trusts its internal polls more than the Pan Atlantic Survey. The internals, she said, have the Democratic congressman gaining support over time and leading LePage by a few percentage points.
"If you look at every public poll since Congressman Michaud got in the race, you'll see that he's the only candidate who's really trending upward," Reinholt said. "But what you want to look at with any poll, they're all snapshots in time, what matters is the trend over time."
"Well, the Pan Atlantic poll showed that, since their last poll, Gov. Paul LePage has gained the most support among the announced candidates for governor, gaining nearly 3% more support than he had before," said LePage campaign consultant Brent Littlefield.
"It really goes against the naysayers, who said Gov. LePage only has a base vote. It proves that Gov. LePage is actually gaining support," Littlefield said. "It's important to also note that this poll comes from a Democrat-leaning polling form in its ownership. So the actual number of Republicans this fall will probably actually be higher."
One statistic in the poll could end up having more of an impact on the race than any single issue. Interviewers asked Cutler and Michaud supporters, plus the small number of undecided voters, who has the best chance to beat Gov. LePage in November.
"Those are the people who are going to decide the outcome of this election, by what they do," said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Orono. In the poll, 65% of the anyone-but-LePage group said Michaud had the best chance to win. Just 22% identified Cutler as the best candidate.
"If I'm working for Mike Michaud, I look at that and say, 'That's a positive. We need to keep people thinking that way.' And if I'm Eliot Cutler, I think, 'Boy, I've got to change that number,'" Brewer said.