AUGUSTA, Maine — Two polls released Wednesday show Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell still locked in a close battle for the Blaine House.
But the polls offered dramatically different assessments about independent candidate Eliot Cutler’s standing in the race as well as the number of voters who remain undecided roughly three weeks before Election Day.
Both Portland-based Critical Insights and the national polling firm Rasmussen Reports showed LePage leading Mitchell with Cutler trailing behind in third.
In the Rasmussen poll, LePage garnered support from 35 percent of survey participants versus 32 percent for Mitchell. The automated telephone survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
The Critical Insights poll, which was commissioned by the Maine Today Media newspaper chain, suggested a somewhat larger gap between the two, with LePage leading Mitchell 35 percent to 29 percent.
That is a change from two weeks ago, when Critical Insights had Mitchell and LePage essentially tied at 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively. The most recent poll, which was conducted by live operators, involved more than 600 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4 percent.
“We knew it was close and is going to be close,” said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the LePage campaign.
“It’s a two-person race, and there are still quite a bit of undecided voters out there,” added Jesse Connolly with the Mitchell campaign.
The buzz Wednesday, however, centered on Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth independent consistently running in third place in the five-person race.
While the Critical Insights poll said support for Cutler remained stagnant at 11 percent — the same as two weeks earlier — Rasmussen had Cutler surging to 21 percent, up seven percentage points from a September survey by Rasmussen.
“Obviously, we feel the Rasmussen poll more accurately reflects what we are seeing and hearing on the campaign trail,” said Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager. “There is great momentum for Eliot and great enthusiasm … and people are moving away from LePage and Mitchell.”
The two other independents in the race — Shawn Moody of Gorham and Kevin Scott of Andover — polled at 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, in the Critical Insights survey. Rasmussen did not ask participants about Moody or Scott; instead, 6 percent of participants said they supported “some other candidate.”
But Cutler’s support wasn’t the only major disparity between the two surveys.
While only 6 percent of respondents to the automated Rasmussen poll said they were undecided, a whopping 26 percent of those participating in the Critical Insights survey had yet to make up their minds.
That number dropped to 18 percent when the pollsters followed up by asking undecided voters whether they were leaning toward voting for a particular candidate.
Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he suspects differences in how the two firms handled undecided voters may help explain some of the disparities.
But Melcher said there was definitely good news for Cutler’s camp in the polls, even if one showed him stuck at 11 percent. The Critical Insights poll suggested that Cutler’s base is solidifying, with 44 percent of his supporters saying they were “definitely” going to vote for him versus 34 percent a few weeks ago.
And the Rasmussen poll showing Cutler at 21 percent is still campaign fodder, even if the other survey came to a different conclusion, Melcher said.
“That is something his campaign can use to keep people from moving away from him,” Melcher said. And Mitchell’s campaign should be concerned, Melcher said, that her numbers are not growing.
Ron Schmidt, chair of the political science department at the University of Southern Maine, said it does not appear that Mitchell has been able to capitalize on defections from LePage’s camp in recent weeks. Instead, those voters appear to have gone over to Cutler or into the ranks of the undecided, he said.
And those undecided voters suggest there is room for a game-changer so late in the election, he said.
“It’s still not too late for someone to give a speech in this campaign that people in Maine will get excited about,” Schmidt said.
Meanwhile, the LePage and Mitchell campaigns — or their respective parties — continued to slug it out in press releases, television ads and formal complaints filed with elections officials.
And the latest campaign finance reports indicate that outside groups and individuals are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Maine’s campaign, setting the stage for an especially heavy barrage of advertisements in the final three weeks.
On Wednesday, the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission, claiming that LePage failed to disclose his use of a company car on his campaign finance disclosure report.
The five candidates are scheduled to take part in a debate today at 6:30 p.m. at Husson University’s Gracie Theatre in Bangor.