ANALYSIS

Campaign strategies shifting as new polling data express voter sentiment

Posted Sept. 21, 2012, at 2:32 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 21, 2012, at 6:18 p.m.
Angus King
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Angus King
Charlie Summers
Charlie Summers Buy Photo
Cynthia Dill
Cynthia Dill Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — New polling data released this week on the election to succeed Olympia Snowe as a U.S. senator from Maine already have begun reshaping campaign strategies as the race enters its final 46 days.

A survey by the Maine People’s Research Center pegged independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King’s support at 44 percent. Republican Charlie Summers followed with 28 percent, and Democrat Cynthia Dill netted 15 percent. The survey indicates that 7 percent remained undecided in the contest, and a combined 6 percent chose independents Steve Woods, Andrew Ian Dodge or Danny Dalton.

North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling placed Summers much closer to King, who registered 43 percent support in a survey conducted Sept. 17 and 18. Summers came in at 35 percent and Dill garnered support from 14 percent of those polled. The firm’s poll — which didn’t ask about Woods, Dodge and Dalton — found 8 percent of respondents undecided.

Republicans pounced on the new results — which reflect a double-digit decline from the 55 percent support King received in the most recent public survey, a June poll done by Critical Insights — as proof that King’s popularity among voters is rapidly waning.

“These numbers are even more interesting than they initially appear,” Matthew Gagnon, a Republican strategist, wrote Thursday on his Pine Tree Politics blog. “According to polling analyst Nate Silver of the New York Times, in the 2012 election cycle, PPP has what is known as a ‘house effect’ of 3.1 percent in favor of the Democrats. … Given that King is rightly viewed as the de facto Democrat in the race, that suggests that the race may be even tighter than this poll suggests.”

Even if the latest polls show a closer race, Silver wrote Thursday on his FiveThirtyEight: Political Calculus blog that his calculation model still “gives Mr. King an 84 percent chance of winning, Mr. Summers 11 percent, and Mrs. Dill 5 percent.”

“I don’t subscribe to some of the breathless analysis that the new polling data shows a significant decline for King,” said Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist who manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consulting firm.

Cuzzi called the latest poll numbers “a more reasonable snapshot of the race.”

King “was never going to get 50 percent in a three-way race,” he said.

“I think the important thing to realize with these numbers is that it’s a reality check,” Cuzzi said. “Expectations around Angus King were otherworldly. Today, they still show a pretty strong advantage for Angus King. If he wins by 8 or 10 or 12 percent, that’s still a very significant margin in a three-way race.”

The impact of new polling data quickly manifested itself in campaign activities.

Striving to defang attack ads from national Republican groups, the King campaign fired back Thursday with a list of Republican “mistruths, accusations and personal attacks” against King, and a call for Summers to demand that the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pull ads critical of King from the airwaves. King also spent Thursday fundraising in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Summers’ campaign drew attention to national political analyses that deem the U.S. Senate race in Maine to be competitive, with Summers gaining on King.

The narrowing poll margin should spur Summers to “relentlessly challenge King, to continue to dislodge voters from his camp while simultaneously focusing on building up his own favorability numbers,” Gagnon wrote Friday in an email to the BDN. “He needs to offer a viable, real alternative to voters who sour on King.”

Gagnon suggested that Summers emulate Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who in 2010 ran a series of ads that “focused positively on his ideas, personality and approach to government” after polling data showed his opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley, slipping in the polls.

Brown won over undecided or wavering “regular Massachusetts” voters with his “famous truck ad (Scott Brown is just a regular guy driving a beat-up old truck who is concerned about the country),” Gagnon said. “Summers needs to do something similar. He has to fill the vacuum left by voters who no longer believe that King is who he says he is, and he has to do that by offering a positive vision of who he is and why he would be a good senator.”

In an effort to sway undecided Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, Summers’ campaign pointed to PPP analyst Tom Jensen’s suggestion that King “may need to more explicitly say he’s going to organize as a Democrat if he wants to win this race.” King has consistently declined to say whether he would caucus with either party if elected.

Cuzzi labeled Jensen’s suggestion “ridiculous” and said doing so would be “incredibly harmful” to King’s campaign. “It would be antithetical to everything King has built his campaign upon,” he said.

Instead, King must use the remainder of the campaign to “paint a much clearer picture of what he wants to accomplish in the U.S. Senate,” Cuzzi said. “Much of the campaign has been about his personality and process of changing the Senate.”

At this point, King needs to “make a forceful, compelling argument to elect him in the face of this money coming in from outside,” Cuzzi said.

Cuzzi and Gagnon both believe the new polling data will encourage more spending from national groups to influence the Senate race in Maine.

Polling data in other states reflects a shrinking likelihood that Republicans can gain a majority in the U.S. Senate this year. Silver on Thursday calculated the chances of the Democrats retaining control of the Senate at 79 percent, up 9 points from Tuesday. For that reason, Cuzzi expects national Republican groups to funnel more money into Maine. “They see a race that is on the margins and potentially that they can move,” he said.

The new poll results “send a signal to activists, supporters, volunteers, operatives and donors who may have been sitting on the sidelines that something is going on here, and that their time, effort and money will not be wasted, as it would have been before,” Gagnon said. “Getting that energy and money off the sidelines is the single most important thing that changes in polling can do. It can also lead ally groups to smell an opportunity and begin to play in the race, as you saw the NRSC recently do.”

Cuzzi dismisses speculation that national Democratic party groups would buy ads to support King indirectly, assuming he would caucus with Democrats, as a way to counter ad buys by conservative groups, such as Freedom PAC, designed to weaken King’s progressive base by trumpeting Dill.

“If they did so, I think it would harm [King] with any moderate Republicans and unenrolled voters,” he said. Doing so could damage both King and Dill and “create a running lane for Summers.”

Gaining but still trailing badly in the polls, Dill “must remain an aggressor, challenging Summers and King and creating distinctions on issues that resonate beyond the Democratic base,” Cuzzi said. “Without funds to pay for significant advertising, Dill must deploy her allies and create newsworthy campaign events that spread her message in the traditional media and online.”

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