LEWISTON, Maine — A new poll from the campaign of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler suggests Cutler, who has languished in other polls released publicly, is gaining steam.
The poll that sampled 400 likely voters statewide Sept. 16 and 17 suggests Cutler may be experiencing a surge in support.
The poll, conducted by the Virginia-based FrederickPolls, still suggests that Cutler is running a distant third with 19 percent, while Republican Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat in the race, are tied at 35 percent. Eleven percent of those polled said they remain undecided.
The poll suggests Cutler’s campaign is moving forward while the campaigns for LePage and Michaud are stalling, Cutler’s campaign staff said.
The numbers are nearly identical to polling conducted by Cutler’s campaign in September 2010, when he ran for governor against LePage and former Maine Senate President Libby Mitchell, a Democrat. That race also included two other independent candidates.
Cutler, who trailed in the polls through most of 2010, ended up finishing second, 2 percentage points behind LePage and about 8,000 votes short. Mitchell came in a distant third.
Commissioned by Cutler’s campaign and released to the Sun Journal late Friday, the poll asked voters to pick their second-choice candidate in the race. Cutler was overwhelmingly the choice in that category for both Democrats and Republicans.
Cutler campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney said the latest numbers were heartening and showed that Cutler was the only candidate who could pull votes from both parties while appealing to Maine’s large swath of unenrolled or independent voters, who comprise about 37 percent of registered voters.
Democrats continue to maintain that 2014 is different from 2010 in that Michaud is a stronger candidate with greater name recognition than Mitchell. Democrats also pointed out that LePage had previously not served in office, and his first term has only served to unify Democrats around Michaud.
Michaud’s campaign has maintained that Cutler’s poor polling performances suggest his candidacy is losing viability and the race is a two-way affair between LePage and Michaud.
Republicans have been more generous toward Cutler, suggesting that at the end of the campaign, the race would largely be between LePage, who has maintained the support of a solid band of Republicans, and Cutler, who they say will again gain steam as Election Day nears.
LePage’s top political consultant, Brent Littlefield, has been dismissive of both the public polls and those commissioned by campaigns and leaked or released to the media, noting those doing the polling are being paid by the campaign.
LePage and his team have frequently said the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, when voters go and cast ballots.
Littlefield said Friday that LePage’s camp has never released an internal poll and wouldn’t, but he wasn’t that surprised by what appeared to be a Cutler bump.
“With the infighting that he’s had with Michael Michaud — with both of them fighting over the small base of hard liberals in the state, it doesn’t surprise me he would be picking up some of that support from Mike Michaud,” Littlefield said.
Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt was equally dismissive of the internal poll from Cutler’s campaign, saying the poll shows only that Cutler is still running a distant third.
“Even Cutler’s own internal polls show a tight race between Congressman Michaud and Gov. LePage, with Cutler in a distant third place,” Reinholt said. “This is nothing for him to be excited about.”
But Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara said the poll clearly showed a movement toward Cutler as political action committees aligned with the major-party candidates spend millions of dollars in television advertising attacking Michaud and LePage.
O’Meara said the latest numbers show unenrolled voter interest was perking up, as it did in 2010, and Cutler’s message was starting to be heard.
He said other high-profile and ongoing battles between Michaud and LePage supporters or between the Democratic and Republican parties and the increase in negative-campaign advertising were alienating Maine voters.
“We’ve seen these ads where both sides are just trying to beat each other up,” O’Meara said. “Look at Eliot’s ads and he’s actually in them. He’s talking about jobs; he’s talking about tax cuts; he’s talking about why don’t we have debates — and you will see another ad soon where he’s talking about infrastructure.”
Democrats and Republicans were both playing to voters’ fears with some “dark and dreary” advertisements meant to scare voters into supporting a particular candidate, he said.
“It’s either that or just this warm and fuzzy stuff,” O’Meara said. “We are actually putting our candidate out there, talking about substantive issues, and what we are seeing is people are now starting to focus in on the race.”
Keith Frederick, the pollster who did the work, said he was seeing a trend beyond Maine that negative political advertising isn’t working to move voters as much as it used to.
Frederick said he does polling work all over the U.S.
“I am very much of the opinion that in the current political world that we are in, positive ads do much better than negative ads, and I’ve got a lot of empirical data to support that right now,” Frederick said.