June 25, 2018
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Beware the polls of March

By David Farmer, Special to the BDN

Everybody loves them: Lists. Polls. Rankings. But we should all be mindful of political polls taken months — even years — away from an election. They’re filled with maybes, what-ifs and plenty of conjecture.

Over the last two weeks, Public Policy Polling has released the results of a survey it conducted in Maine on March 3-6.

The poll set up hypothetical electoral contests between U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and a host of would-be challengers, both Democrats and Republicans.

It tested Gov. Paul LePage’s approval rating and opinions around marriage equality.

In most cases, there seemed to be bad news for Maine conservatives.

The polls show Sen. Snowe winning a primary and general election despite a fairly large number of Republicans who would like to see someone more conservative. In fact, according to the poll, Sen. Snowe is much more popular with Democrats and independents than she is with Republicans.

According to the poll, Governor LePage “is still underwater with Maine voters, not getting much of a honeymoon at all. 43 percent approve, but 48 percent disapprove of his job performance so far, putting him in almost as bad shape as polarizing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and ousted Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.”

And on gay marriage, the poll found that 47 percent support allowing same-sex couples to marry while 45 percent oppose it.

Here’s what Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said: “We’re seeing sentiment on gay marriage moving more and more toward equality as time passes and older generations are replaced with their more socially progressive younger counterparts.”

But Maine conservatives should take heart. I don’t see one iota of bad news for them in this poll.

Sen. Snowe might be too moderate for some tastes, but she is an overwhelmingly popular Republican. If Republicans are to ever regain the White House and both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, they need to make their peace with folks like Snowe. She’s not the problem for the Tea Party and other conservatives; she’s part of a solution to gain a majority.

On Gov. LePage, the pollster’s analysis falls short. While it’s true that the governor’s negatives outweigh his positives, he is enjoying a honeymoon.

Less than 38 percent of voters actually cast their ballot for Gov. LePage. Despite being brash and reckless, it appears that Mainers, even Democrats and Independents, are willing to give him a chance and his base is holding firm.

His approval rating might not be above 50 percent, but it’s higher than where he started. And if the poll is to be believed, even 11 percent of self-described “very liberal” people and 10 percent of “somewhat liberal” people approve of his job performance.

Given the governor’s troubling proposals and bombastic outbursts, a lot of folks are still open to him.

Finally, the polling company’s president suggests that since the 2009 campaign, a demographic shift has made the state more open to same-sex marriage.

If only it was true.

Eventually, Maine — and the rest of the country — will end our embarrassing, narrow and unconstitutional bigotry toward gay couples, but so far there’s been no great shift in sentiment in this state.

In 2009, a People’s Veto campaign successfully overturned a new Maine law that would have allowed gay couples to get married. As early as April 2008, pollsters were testing the question. Since that time, the spread between supporters and opponents has been largely within the margin of error.

In fact, during the 2009 campaign, after millions of dollars had been spent by both sides, Public Policy Polling Found a 48-48 percent split just two weeks before the election. The group’s last poll, released the day before the election, showed 51 percent opposing gay marriage and 47 percent supporting.

The final vote total was 53-47 percent in favor of repeal. The same 47 percent, perhaps, who told Public Policy Polling earlier this month that they still support marriage equality.

While I would like to believe that there has been some sort of shift in public opinion, history and the numbers suggest otherwise.

Absent real campaigns, candidates or urgency, any March poll is suspect. But even if you believe the results of this one, the information isn’t very dramatic: Sen. Snowe is popular; two months in to his four-year term not much has changed for Gov. LePage; and Maine remains almost statically divided about same-sex marriage.

Not much new there.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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