May 23, 2018
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Polls failed to catch last-minute trends

By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA,  Maine — A week ago the telephone surveys of Maine voters were showing Paul LePage with a sizable lead in the race for governor and 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree with a slight advantage over her GOP challenger, Dean Scontras. When the votes were cast, it was LePage who eked out a victory and Pingree who won in a landslide.
“This election was like no other I have seen,” said MaryEllen Fitzgerald, owner of Critical Insights, the survey firm that polled for the Maine Today newspapers. “In our last survey we had 11 percent undecided; I have never seen it that high so close to an election.”
She said the survey calls stopped before several events occurred that apparently had a dramatic effect on voters. Several independent get-out-the-vote efforts shifted from Democrat Libby Mitchell to independent Eliot Cutler, and former independent Gov. Angus King endorsed Cutler.
“I think there was a strong tide for Cutler, and he came close to winning,” she said. “You had that e-mailing go out from Equality Maine and that helped boost some turnout that helped Cutler.”
Fitzgerald said the group dropped its exclusive advocacy for Mitchell and urged their members to consider Cutler.
Others agree the polling that was done was completed before several significant events occurred that seemed to shift most of the undecided to Cutler.
“I think a lot of the surge for Cutler was the result of his endorsement by Angus,” said Chris Potholm, a pollster and a government professor at Bowdoin College. “It shifted some people that might have gone to Mitchell but instead went to Cutler.”
Potholm agreed that the polling that was done occurred too early to catch the shift, similar to the late break for James Longley, the independent who won the governorship in 1974 after trailing in the polls. Potholm said LePage won by keeping his base while Mitchell lost hers, and Cutler surged too late to overcome LePage.
“I have said for a while that whoever got to 38 percent of the vote was going to get elected,” Potholm said.
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said he agrees with the analysis of what happened in the governor’s race, but said that does not explain the apparent contradictory way the voters cast their ballots.
“We had LePage narrowly winning, with both Pingree and Michaud winning re-election by a wide margin and then voters apparently going back and voting for Republicans in legislative races,” he said. “We have always had a lot of ticket splitters, but this appears to be beyond what we have seen in the past.”
Brewer said all of the activity in the governor’s race may have helped the two members of Congress as Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts helped Cutler surge, and also helped in the congressional races.
“But then you have the real conundrum of those same voters voting for Republicans in the State House and Senate races,” he said. “I am not sure we have a real clear explanation of what happened and why.”
Fitzgerald agreed. She said polling was picking up the tremendous level of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, yet the members of Congress won re-election handily.
“We saw a tremendous amount of negative advertising in the 1st District race,” she said.” And all of that at the end, as things were more fluid and undecided than I have ever seen before, may have had more of an impact than some thought.”
Potholm said the amount of attack ads in the 1st District race was unprecedented, as was the out-of-state spending in several state Senate contests. He said that may have contributed to the apparent “disconnect” by the voters between the congressional elections and the legislative contests.
“That was an awful lot of money for state races, and that may have helped in some other races as well as in the seats that were targeted,” he said.
All three shared in the frustration that they do not have the data to really say what happened in the races and can only analyze and extrapolate from the actual vote count. There were no exit polls of voters that would provide demographic information that would make an analysis more substantive.
“Even though exit polls have their problems, as we know, they would have given us a lot more data about what happened and why,” Brewer said.

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