Poll shows LePage and Michaud neck and neck

According to a recent poll of 628 likely voters in Maine, done by the firm Clarity Campaigns and taken between June 22-24, the race for governor is literally neck and neck between Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District. It shows independent Eliot Cutler in third, about eight points behind, outside the margin of error (3.72 percent). The official numbers are:

  • Ø Paul LePage          32 percent
  • Ø Mike Michaud         32 percent
  • Ø Eliot Cutler              24 percent

Besides the obvious observation that this race is clearly too close to call with 16 months until Election Day, what do these numbers tell us?

First and foremost, LePage is much more vulnerable than expected. This is the lowest I have seen his numbers since well before he took office (really, since he won the primary in 2010). But more importantly, he has dropped below the 35th parallel. What is the 35th parallel? Other than it being the proposed route for the Atlantic and Pacific railroad in the 1880s, the 35th parallel is the line LePage was never supposed to be able to fall below: 35 percent of the vote.

That 35 percent was supposed to be his bedrock that would never leave him. If that base is now actually crumbling, he is in very big trouble. And since LePage has done nothing to broaden his appeal beyond this group (virtually no Democrats in this poll are saying they’ll vote for him), it will be hard for him to bring anyone other than these folks into the fold.

The only caveat I will give is that this poll was taken in the wake of his inappropriate comments about Sen. Troy Jackson and our state’s budget battle. Those factors could easily have pushed him down a few points. However, his base is supposed to be with him no matter what, and if they are thinking about someone else or thinking of staying home, LePage could be the first incumbent in Maine to lose the seat in almost 50 years.

In terms of Michaud, for a guy who has never run statewide and is pretty unknown in the southern part of the state, his beginning position is obviously strong. To be neck and neck with an incumbent is a position every candidate would take. Plus, his favorability of 41 percent is nine points above his current vote total, which means there are a lot of voters out there who like him but aren’t yet in his camp. They will be the easiest to bring home.

Speaking of “bringing home,” perhaps the one liability for Michaud in this poll is that the Democratic base has not fully rallied around him. About 40 percent of self-identified Democrats are not yet voting for him (some going to Cutler and a handful undecided). That said, this is also good news in that it is easier to convince a Democrat to come back home than it is to convince someone from another party to vote your way. In the end, this is obviously a group that he must unify if he wants to win.

What does it say about Cutler? It says he’s stronger than I expect many Dems would like but weaker than I am sure he would like. Plus, his favorability numbers are in the red (of those who know him, more don’t like him than do), and they are barely above his current vote standing (27 percent like him, and 24 percent are voting for him). That doesn’t give him a lot of room to move, so he will need to focus on convincing those who have no opinion to come his way. That is much harder than what both LePage and Michaud have to do.

But the worse news for Cutler is that by being in third and outside the margin of error, he starts the race losing the argument that he should not be seen as the spoiler. Plus, he has dropped significantly from his standing at the end of 2010 (second place and 36 percent), and the bulk of those votes have gone back to the Democratic nominee. One thought is that he could entertain a strategy to peel some Republicans away from LePage, but he might then lose more Democrats to Michaud.

News of this poll is probably hardest on LePage, but Cutler is a close second as his path to victory is much harder to see at the moment.

For disclosure purposes, please note that Clarity Campaigns is a Democratic firm, and the poll was paid for by the Maine Democratic Party and given to me by someone who asked to remain anonymous. Obviously, based on all this, I said I would only write about it if I could see the poll and questions in full and that they answer any and all questions about methodology and crosstabs, so I could examine the poll for bias leaning toward the Democrat.

Those who know me know that I am a pretty hard stickler for accuracy with polling. Last summer Phil Harriman showed me a poll from Republicans that had Charlie Summers significantly closing the gap against Angus King. I was pretty skeptical when I first read them. But after closer look, I was convinced they were not slanted. And although we got slammed by many for writing about a Republican poll, it turned out the numbers were spot on when neutral polling was released within weeks.

I feel the same with these numbers. The balance of self-identified party affiliation models close to what we’d expect to see in the 2014 election (40-45 percent Democrat; 35-40 percent Republican; 20-25 percent independent). The gender breakdown is spot on (53-47 female to male). And the favorability numbers track pretty close to recent public polls. In fact, in regard to favorability, the one person who seems low is Michaud at 41 percent.

Additionally, the final head-to-head numbers were weighted to ensure they matched the likely 2014 voter model based on vote history patterns. That means after the calls were made, they adjusted the final numbers to weight them closer to who will actually vote from which parts of the state. Through that weighting, they actually brought Michaud’s number down two points and LePage’s up two points (Cutler’s stayed the same). Clearly if they were looking to bias the poll, they would not have made that move.

In the end, while these numbers certainly can’t predict a winner, they are good news for Michaud in that he is neck and neck with the governor with plenty of room to grow. The numbers are not so good news for the governor as his “rock solid base” may be starting to chip. And Cutler is a bit in nowhere-land trying to find some footing in a race that could slip away.

All that said, a lot can happen in 16 months. We are just getting started…