Michaud, LePage, Cutler: the meaning behind the poll numbers

By now we’ve all seen the poll numbers – Mike Michaud, the 2nd District Democratic congressman looking to challenged Republican Gov. Paul LePage, leads the field that also includes independent Eliot Cutler.

In the three-way race, Michaud garners 40 percent of the vote, compared to LePage’s 31 percent and Cutler’s 26 percent, according to the survey by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner commissioned by the National Education Association. In a head-to-head match-up with LePage, Michaud gets 61 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for LePage.

Now, obviously this was a poll championed by Michaud, whose supporters used it in a fundraising pitch. As many – including this blog – have previously pointed out, the real race right now is between Michaud and Cutler to show they are the strongest candidate for Democratic and democratically-inclined independents to rally behind. It’s exactly what we saw happen – albeit very late in the game – between Cutler and Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell – the voters broke heavily for Cutler, leading him to finish second with 36 percent of the vote and Mitchell a distant third with 19 percent.

And while any poll only represents a moment in time, political minds on all sides of the spectrum agree Cutler can’t be happy with his starting point.

“Cutler starts out the race in deep third place; while Michaud can’t say it, his main opponent is Cutler and right now he is crushing him,” says a Maine Democratic strategist, not working for anyone in the race.

One Republican, also not working the race, adds, “Cutler is in a bad place and currently has no apparent path to victory. Too early to stick a fork in him, but he is cooking nicely.”

But Cutler’s inability so far to compete evenly with Michaud also carries significance for someone else in the race with a lot to lose – LePage.

“It’s early still, but the trend for LePage is not good,” says the Democrat. “He most likely has a ceiling of 37 percent  to 40 percent and this election is more about who can beat LePage in a 3-way.”

Many Maine politicos say its hard to overestimate the damage LePage has done by continuing to act in a manner that rubs voters the wrong way – so while Democrats may pillory him on policy, that isn’t actually frothing up most voters. But particularly LePage’s vulgar comments about state Sen. Troy Jackson during the recent budget battle really offended many, including Republicans or independents inclined to support his low tax, smaller-government policies.

“LePage’s fate is and has been in his own hands. Michaud is well-liked and a solid candidate, but the dramatic change in numbers is not a reflection on anything that Mike has done,” says the Republican. “Instead, it is a direct reaction to the governor’s crude comments. LePage still could pull out a win, but it is going to take a major attitude adjustment to do so.”

Another GOP consultant even floated the possibility that if LePage’s numbers stay where they are, the incumbent could face a primary challenge, particularly if Cutler were to drop out.

“It looks like Paul’s in trouble,” he says. “If Cutler changes his mind, I think we’ll have a different GOP candidate. I also think we’ll see Cutler start to fade away, no one really likes the guy.”

Much can happen ahead of the 2014 election, but it should be no surprise that Michaud is doing well in early polling – you don’t leave what has essentially become a congressional seat for life on a whim or a high-stakes gamble. He knew there was space for him. But the political class is right when they note much of what this poll reflects is anti-LePage sentiment rather than voters clamoring to support Michaud. If Cutler comes out swinging to make a case against the former mill worker, he can raise his own name identification and eat into Michaud’s soft support.

Rebekah Metzler

About Rebekah Metzler

Rebekah Metzler is a breaking news editor for CNN's digital politics team in Washington. Previously, she was a senior news editor with U.S. News and World Report, where she began her three-year tenure as a political writer. She spent much of 2012 on the road covering the presidential campaign in battleground states across the country. Metzler proudly tells all who will listen she hails from the great state of Maine where she covered state politics for the Lewiston Sun Journal and MaineToday Media. Metzler earned her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and her undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College.