A new poll commissioned by the center-right leaning website Pine Tree Politics and released this weekend suggests that the race in Maine’s 1st Congressional District is significantly tighter than was indicated in another poll done for MaineToday Media two weeks ago.
The poll shows Democratic incumbent Chellie Pingree with 46 percent support, Republican challenger Dean Scontras with 38.4 percent and 15.6 percent of likely voters still undecided.
The MaineToday Media poll done by the Portland firm Critical Insights on Sept. 27 showed Pingree with a 28 percent lead over Scontras.
“We’re pleased that we’re gaining ground,” Scontras said Sunday afternoon. “You definitely feel that we’re part of a grass-roots movement that’s really combusting here in the 1st District.”
The Pine Tree Politics-Maine Center for Public Opinion poll surveyed 346 likely voters Oct. 4-7 and has a 5 percent margin of error, according to an explanation by website founder Matt Gagnon, who has done consulting work for the Scontras campaign and also works on the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The numbers above show Pingree is in the driver’s seat without question,” Gagnon wrote in an explanation of the poll on his website. “But they also show Scontras as a legitimate contender who — given the right circumstances — has a shot of winning the race.”
Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said Sunday that Gagnon’s political affiliations might have made a difference in the poll’s results.
“Chellie doesn’t pay much attention to polls and knows that she has to work hard every day to earn the support of Maine people,” he said in a statement. “To her, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But it’s not surprising to see that a poll done for a conservative website that intentionally overpolled conservatives would end up making the conservative candidate look good.”
Pine Tree Politics has declined to release the results of its poll for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race because it said it undersampled some key areas because of poll staffing issues, according to MaineToday Media, which reported that the district will be re-polled early next week.
Another 1st Congressional District poll done by national firm Public Policy Polling in September indicated that Pingree had a 9 percent lead over her challenger.
So what gives with all the numbers disparity? Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor now on sabbatical to write a book about the history of political polling, said Sunday that many factors affect the usefulness of any poll, including sample size and methodology. It is also as rational to vote against a candidate as for one, she said.
“I might be the last person who should say this, but I think people should forget about the polls to some extent and just look at the candidates,” she said, suggesting that polls have become part of political entertainment.
According to Fried, the Portland-based Maine Center for Public Opinion, founded in March by software developer Mark Smith, is a new pollster without much of a track record.
“I’m unsure of what to make of this particular poll,” she said. “They’re doing a few strange things with how they’ve sampled. Like oversampling areas where there was high Republican turnout.”
A June poll done by the Maine Center for Public Opinion and commissioned by the Peter Mills for Governor Campaign showed Maine state Sen. Peter Mills at the head of the Republican gubernatorial primary candidates with 22.1 percent support and Waterville Mayor Paul LePage with just 10.7 percent support.
In fact, LePage beat his closest challenger, Les Otten, by more than 2-to-1, which few political experts or pollsters saw coming, and Mills did not make the top three Republican finishers.
“It takes more than one poll to show a trend,” Fried said. “We’ve had a series of polls that show Pingree being ahead the whole time. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss [the latest poll] completely — but you’d want to see more data.”
Scontras said that his campaign has believed all along that the race is much tighter than the Critical Insights polls have shown, and the recent TV spots he’s running are helping him gain more traction and recognition among voters.
“The energy level is high everywhere we go. People are working really hard,” he said. “We’ve got to run like we’re behind … everybody likes the underdog.”