In coffee shops, in diners and across kitchen tables over the weekend, many Maine voters struggled to decide who they want to lead the state for the next four years.
A group of four 50-something men having lunch on Saturday in Ellsworth agreed that the election is monumentally important because the state needs to get back on track economically. Still, all four said they hadn’t settled on a candidate.
They will need to get off the fence soon.
Last-minute undecideds always make up a certain percentage of the electorate, but in the 2010 gubernatorial race, indecision seems particularly palpable.
Several recent polls released have put the number of undecided anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent, but politics watchers believe the number could be higher when you factor “soft” support.
“I think there is some definite fluidity in the polls. There will be a lot of gut checks going on with voters in the last few days,” University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried said Friday. “I think in each campaign you have a set of people who might move.”
Many factors are driving indecision, but the biggest seem to be fear and strategy.
There are clear camps of “anyone but Paul LePage” and “anyone but Libby Mitchell” voters who fear the other side.
The Democratic nominee is hampered by her longtime incumbency and a “vote-the-bums-out” fervor that exists in Maine and across the country.
On the other side, Republican LePage is favored by Maine’s tea party backers, even if he has shied away from being their candidate. LePage has endeared conservative voters with his tell-it-like-it-is persona, but he also has turned off some Mainers who see him as a bully.
Eliot Cutler, who is running as the best option for both Republicans and Democrats who are less than thrilled with their party nominee, has not been immune from criticism either.
Fear turns to strategy when swing voters move from Mitchell to Cutler, or vice versa, according to Fried.
Weeks ago, many Mainers were unsure of supporting Cutler because they didn’t believe he had a chance to win. Recent polls, however, suggest Cutler might have more support than Mitchell, which could move Democrats to the middle to ensure LePage doesn’t move to Augusta.
Experts agreed that fewer Republicans are undecided, but many moderates are scratching their heads. We want a Republican in the Blaine House, they say, but do we want this guy?
When faced with the prospect of Cutler or Mitchell, moderate Republicans would almost certainly choose Cutler, but some still see him as a Democrat posing as an independent.
In Ellsworth on Saturday, Stan Thompson, a registered Republican from Waltham, said Mitchell would be his last choice. Democrats have had their chance, he offered.
But Thompson is not sold on LePage, who he believes could do more harm than good. Does that leave Cutler?
“I’ve definitely given him a closer look in the last week,” Thompson said. “But I don’t know.”
Daniel Prentiss of Sidney, who was in Belfast on Saturday visiting a friend, said he intends to go to the polls Tuesday for the first time in several election cycles.
“Things seem really bad,” he said. “I know a lot of people who don’t have work and businesses that have closed down. It feels important to vote this year.”
Prentiss said he thinks Maine needs a businessman as its governor and is leaning toward Paul LePage or Shawn Moody. However, after seeing a news report about Eliot Cutler’s recent surge in the polls, Prentiss wants to learn more about him.
“I don’t think I’ll decide until I’m looking at their names on the ballot,” he said.
Prentiss likely will not be alone.
Patrick Murphy, president of Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland, had the number of undecideds in his poll released on Friday at 7 percent but admitted that pollsters pushed hard for a choice.
Among undecideds, Murphy said the group is likely debating between Cutler and Mitchell.
“Cutler needs most undecideds to break his way, but he also needs more of Mitchell’s supporters to peel off,” Murphy said.
The Pan Atlantic poll, which showed LePage ahead with 37 percent, followed by Cutler at 31 percent and Mitchell at 22 percent, also identified voters who are leaning toward a particular candidate. Using that metric, Cutler has the highest amount of leaning support, with 9.8 percent, followed by LePage at 7 percent and Mitchell at 5.3 percent.
The survey shows variances among age groups, too. Mitchell has the most support among 18-34 year olds, LePage leads the 35-54 group and Cutler has the edge in voters over the age of 55. The biggest group of undecideds is between 35 and 54 years old.
Cutler’s support has been the hardest to gauge because he doesn’t really have a base. No pro-life, traditional marriage conservatives. No union Democrats.
Another poll released Friday by Critical Insights conducted for MaineToday Media had LePage in front with 40 percent support with Mitchell and Cutler tied at 21 percent and 11 percent undecided.
The two other independents, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, have virtually no chance of winning on Election Day, but they could affect the race. Votes for either candidate are largely protest votes, but they show the lack of interest in the major party candidates and in Cutler. If Moody and Scott combine for 5 percent of the vote, that could make a difference in the outcome.
While fear and strategy are weighing on voters, apathy doesn’t appear to be a factor. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said the number of absentee ballots requested and returned so far suggests turnout will not be affected by indecision.
Dunlap said as of late Friday 129,904 absentee ballots had been requested and 104,071 returned. The absentee requests were split fairly evenly, with 38 percent represented by Democrats, 36 percent by Republicans and 25 by unenrolled voters.
Of the 973,855 registered voters in Maine, 33 percent are Democrats, 28 percent are Republican and 35 percent are unenrolled.
By Tuesday, he expected the total returned to be about 155,000, which would put turnout on par with other gubernatorial election years.
No matter how big Maine’s undecided voter bloc is, the group will likely be instrumental in deciding the next governor.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this story.