AUGUSTA, Maine — In the first poll of Maine voters since he officially announced his candidacy for governor, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, led the pack of gubernatorial hopefuls, edging incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, N.C., surveyed 953 voters last weekend through automated phone surveys. Their results showed Michaud picking up 39 percent, LePage with 35 percent and Cutler at 18 percent.

“Since the congressman first formed his exploratory committee in June, through his formal announcement two weeks ago in Lewiston, the enthusiasm for his campaign has only grown,” Michaud spokesman David Farmer said in a written statement.

PPP released the first batch of results Tuesday. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent. Polling results for Maine’s 2014 U.S. Senate race will be released later in the week.

Michaud gained 9 points since the last PPP poll, conducted in January, when he polled at 30 percent. That support seems to have come from Cutler’s supporters, as the independent candidate dropped 8 points, from 26 percent in January to 18 percent in August.

LePage’s numbers remained relatively flat since January’s PPP poll, when the governor polled at 34 percent. That’s consistent with conventional wisdom that LePage will likely not see his share of the vote grow much past the 37.6 percent he received in 2010.

The pickup for Michaud was predictable, said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. He is the only candidate who has been actively campaigning in recent weeks. Aside from the campaign announcement, he has also held a “unity” event last week during which his sole primary opponent, Steve Woods of Yarmouth, dropped out of the race.

“The move up for Michaud and down for Cutler shouldn’t surprise anyone,” Brewer said Tuesday. “Michaud is a six-term sitting U.S. congressman. Eliot Cutler ran a very strong race for governor in 2010, but it was his first foray into seeking political office. He doesn’t have a party, so he’s not able to fall back on partisan support.”

Michaud is also the only candidate with a majority favorability rating: 53 percent of the latest PPP survey respondents said they had a favorable opinion of him, compared to 30 percent with an unfavorable opinion. The governor’s favorable-unfavorable score was 39-56, while Cutler’s was at 32-35.

There are still 15 months for each candidate to sway Maine voters, so it’s unlikely this poll predicts with any accuracy what the results will look like on election night. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely inconsequential.

According to Ronald Schmidt, a political scientist for the University of Southern Maine, early polls carry weight for a key group in state politics: big-money political donors. That could mean a campaign revenue bump for Michaud.

“What [the candidates] want to be able to do with polling data this early is say ‘I’ve got enough support from voters, likely voters, and my base is so strong that I’m a good investment,’” Schmidt said.

Still, the Cutler camp is not worried, said Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for the Cutler campaign. The independent candidate consistently ranked third in polls during the entire lead-up to the 2010 gubernatorial election, only to surge late in the campaign to finish second to LePage by less than 2 percentage points.

“We’ve been here before,” O’Meara said Tuesday. He also pointed out that unlike Michaud and LePage, Cutler has a lot of room to grow.

According to the poll, 33 percent of Maine voters have “no opinion of Cutler. Only 17 percent of respondents have no opinion of Michaud, and only 5 percent have no opinion of LePage.

“A third of the voters don’t have an opinion yet of Elliot,” O’Meara said. “He’s running against a current congressman and an incumbent governor. We know we have to introduce him to voters again.”

With the governor’s unfavorable rating at 56 percent, the presence of so-called “anything but LePage” voters is clear. Many political observers believe that the 2014 election will come down to whether either Cutler or Michaud can coalesce enough of the anti-LePage vote to overcome the governor’s solid but largely immovable base of diehard supporters. If neither can do it, LePage could eke out another victory.

Brewer and Schmidt said the poll suggests that Democrats and progressives learned a lesson in 2010, when Democratic candidate and then-Senate President Libby Mitchell placed a distant third behind LePage and Cutler.

“There are many Democratic voters who felt shellshocked after the last election, who now feel like they’ve got a candidate who is a potential winner,” Schmidt said.

“In 2014 there are going to be plenty of Democrats and unenrolled, non-LePage people saying, ‘Look, we really kind of blew it in 2010, and what we got was the last three and a half years of LePage, which we didn’t like. We can’t blow it again,’” Brewer said.

PPP also asked voters about reports that the governor told donors at a GOP fundraiser that President Barack Obama “hates white people.” The governor has denied making the comment, but 47 percent of those polled believe he said it, 30 percent believe he did not and 5 percent were unsure.

Another 62 percent of respondents said they think LePage “causes Maine national embarrassment,” while 33 percent said he does not and 5 percent were unsure.

Brent Littlefield, political consultant for LePage, said he didn’t put much stock in Public Policy Polling’s results because the firm conducts the polls independently.

“I still have yet to understand why news organization allow the reporting of poll numbers from polls they have not purchased,” he wrote in a statement. “There is nothing ‘free’ in this world.”

Littlefield said PPP’s numbers do not reflect the LePage campaign’s internal numbers, though he has also repeatedly told media he will not disclose the results of internal polling.

Regardless of whether they believe LePage made the incendiary Obama comment, the poll suggests that 20 percent of Mainers believe the the president does hate white people, while 66 percent say he does not and 13 percent were not sure.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...