PORTLAND, Maine — With the debates behind us and the home stretch of Maine’s gubernatorial campaign in sight, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has seen his lead over Gov. Paul LePage evaporate as the incumbent Republican’s support climbed through mid-October.

Among likely voters, LePage and Michaud are tied at 42 percent, according to a new poll conducted Oct. 23-29 by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the Bangor Daily News. Independent Eliot Cutler — who on Wednesday gave his supporters permission to vote for one of the leading candidates — trails nearly 30 points behind, at 13 percent.

The results represent an upswing for LePage, who polled at just 36 percent in a previous BDN/Ipsos survey, conducted Oct. 6-12. Michaud’s support was the same in both polls, while Cutler’s standing diminished 3 points.

The poll was conducted online by Ipsos, the world’s third-largest research agency and a leader in online polling. The firm is the pollster of choice for Reuters and was among the most accurate polling outfits during the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections. Their sample is drawn from a variety of online sources, including large panels of respondents reached via email and others reached via non-panel sources, such as websites and apps.

Ipsos surveyed 946 registered voters, of which 488 respondents were deemed to be likely voters through a seven-question screen.

The precision of the online polls is measured using a credibility interval. For ballot questions such as elections and referendums, this figure functions essentially the same way as a traditional margin of error. The credibility intervals are 3.6 percentage points for registered voters and 5.1 percentage points for likely voters.

Debates boost LePage’s standing, favorability

Julia Clark, a pollster for Ipsos, said LePage was buoyed by a strong performance in the debates, the last of which took place on Oct. 21. LePage appeared comfortable and confident on the debate stage, which Clark said was reflected in his polling position.

Clark said LePage’s upward momentum came from previously undecided voters and, likely, from Cutler’s supporters who had abandoned ship. Still, she said Michaud’s base of support, having remained steady in both polls, should be worrying to LePage.

More than 60 percent of registered voters reported they decided who they were going to vote for more than a month ago, with a full 35 percent saying they decided before the election began. Just 27 percent said they had decided “within the past few weeks.”

Clark said that indicates LePage’s newfound support is “softer” than Michaud’s.

“With LePage, there’s a little more squishiness because the people coming to him now were not originally in his camp,” she said. “Those voters are more vulnerable to not voting or to changing their minds again.”

“But, absolutely, the lead Michaud enjoyed two weeks ago is gone. We’ve got ourselves a horse race,” she said.

In the new poll, just 2 percent said they were still unsure who would get their vote on Nov. 4, compared to 5 percent in the prior survey.

The Cutler factor

The BDN/Ipsos survey concluded on the day Cutler potentially changed the shape of the race by announcing that while he intended to campaign until the very end, he recognized that victory was a “long shot” and his supporters had his blessing to abandon ship and support a different candidate.

Clark said that given the current statistical tie between Michaud and LePage, the activity among Cutler’s supporters could decide the race. Cutler’s most prominent supporter, U.S. Sen. Angus King, has already abandoned him; King previously endorsed Cutler, then switched his support to Michaud.

While Cutler may have recognized he has a small chance of winning, Clark said the independent candidate could still be a powerful player in the race. “If Cutler says or does anything to nudge his supporters one way or the other, it would represent a turning point,” she said.

Despite polling 30 points behind the frontrunners, Cutler did well among registered voters in a hypothetical head-to-head match with LePage, beating the governor 53-40. He also was viewed more positively than either of his opponents, with 59 percent saying they viewed him favorably.

While people generally seem to like Cutler, only 5 percent of registered voters said they believed Cutler would win the race, compared to 47 percent who predicted a LePage victory and 33 percent who said Michaud would win.

While LePage’s favorability among registered voters has actually increased three points since the previous BDN/Ipsos poll, he still lags Michaud, who is viewed favorably by 55 percent. In a head-to-head matchup, likely voters would elect Michaud over LePage, 48-46.

Those figures give Michaud a tiny edge over LePage, Clark said, especially if he can peel more support from Cutler.

“In the voting booth, people make calculations based on safety. If they know their candidate is not going to win, some will vote on principle. But many will vote to keep another candidate out of office,” she said. “This is where LePage’s favorability and where the two-way race question comes in, because both break in favor of the Democrat.”

Voters inundated with political advertising

This year’s election cycle has already smashed previous records on the amount of money spent by candidates and outside groups, and the voters are feeling that cash injection in the form of political advertisements.

When asked whether they had seen any political advertising in the last few weeks, 93 percent of registered voters said yes.

But, while nearly everyone had seen ads, just 20 percent said the ads did anything to influence their votes — 24 percent said the political advertising they had seen made them less likely to vote at all.

Those figures seem to raise questions about the efficacy of political advertising, but Clark said they actually fit neatly into the conventional wisdom about voter preferences and political ads.

“These ads do work, but they only work on the very small proportion of people who don’t know how they’re going to vote already,” she said. The majority of voters, she said, know exactly how they’re going to vote in any given election, starting in their teenage years. They are either reliable Democrats or reliable Republicans, she said.

Even voters who self-identify as independent almost always vote for one party or the other, she said.

That reality is reflected in the party identification of the poll’s respondents. Including self-described independent voters who lean toward one party or the other, the poll’s likely voters are 42 percent Democrat, 43 percent Republican. Just 14 percent were true independents, who said they truly didn’t lean one way or the other.

Collins, No on Question 1 maintain leads

The new poll’s results indicate Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins maintains a 2-to-1 lead over her Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows, 64-32, with only 2 percent saying they were undecided.

Collins’ lead is even larger than in the previous BDN/Ipsos poll, which showed her leading Bellows 56-31.

Meanwhile, Question 1 — which asks Mainers whether they want to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps for bear hunters — appears headed for defeat, though the margin is shrinking with 49 percent of likely voters saying they’ll vote no and 45 percent saying they’ll vote yes.

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,...