Experts: Early gubernatorial polls not very reliable

Posted April 25, 2010, at 8:46 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last week Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, released a survey indicating she was considerably ahead in her five-way primary. But political scientists and professional pollsters doubt the survey indicated anything more than name recognition from her decades of holding public office.

“That’s all it is this early,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “Having a lead in the polls at this point does indicate an edge in name recognition. That is something that Senator Mitchell can say, that ‘Hey, more people know me than the other candidates.’ But that is about all she can say.”

But in a release sent to media outlets, Mitchell claimed she “leads the race,” receiving support of 36 percent of the “likely Democratic party voters” in a statewide survey. A memo attached to the release from Mitchell pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research said the telephone survey was conducted April 11-14 and was of 587 “registered and likely” June Democratic primary voters.

The survey memo pegged former Attorney General Steve Rowe at 16 percent, Pat McGowan at 13 percent, John Richardson at 5 percent and Rosa Scarcelli at 4 percent. The memo said 26 percent are undecided.

Brewer said getting a good sample of likely voters in a primary is even more difficult than getting a sample of likely voters in a general election, and that has proved difficult for pollsters. He said with the campaign on the Democratic side yet to see much advertising, the GOP candidates probably have higher name recognition numbers.

“Peter Mills ran four years ago for governor and [Les] Otten has been on TV, and the others are starting to advertise,” he said. “I haven’t seen the Democrats on TV yet.”

MaryEllen Fitzgerald owns Critical Insights Inc., a Portland-based research firm. She agreed with Brewer that early polls are “all about name ID” and are not a good measure of likely voter commitment to a candidate.

“We have 25 candidates that have declared they are running for governor, and I doubt the average voter could name more than two or three,” she said. “It is all name recognition at this point with very little predictive value.”

Fitzgerald said getting a good sample of likely primary voters is difficult, and expensive. She said her firm uses several “screening” questions to get a sample they believe reflects likely voters. Those include asking not only whether they intend to vote in an election, but also whether they voted in the last election. She said another screening question asks the polling place where they cast that vote.

“And there are other factors that are used to get to likely voters to try and narrow down the sample to truly likely voters,” she said.

Her firm is not polling for any of the candidates this election cycle but has conducted candidate surveys in past elections.

Sandy Maisel is a government professor at Colby College and has been a longtime observer of Maine politics. He said even party activists are not really focused on the primary contests until the last few weeks of a campaign, and the early surveys are “just name ID” and are only an indication of how well a person is known.

“I don’t give a lot of credibility to them, but on the other hand, it does show that President Mitchell has a lead in name recognition,” he said. “I may have missed them, but I haven’t seen any of the Democratic candidates on TV, and it’s after the campaign is really under way that we will see people deciding how they will vote.”

Maisel said that although he has not seen any public polling on the GOP race he would expect some have higher name recognition than the Democrats because they have been airing TV ads as well as campaigning across the state.

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