Why is Cutler so far back in the polls?

Eliot Cutler

Eliot Cutler

As Mike Tipping writes today, the polls in the Maine governor’s race continue to show Cutler far back.

How far back? The last three polls have Cutler at 11% (Public Policy Polling), 15% (Rasmussen) and 10% (YouGov).

These polls, when such data are provided, show that Michaud would win against LePage if Cutler was not a candidate.

Cutler ended his 2010 race with 36% of the vote.

Why is Cutler getting, in the best of those last three polls, less than half of his 2010 vote?

1. The strongest possibility is that Cutler’s 2010 vote share was not mostly due to a surge of voters who decided he was the best candidate for governor. Sure, a segment of Cutler voters believed that, but there were other kinds of people who voted for Cuter.

2. Cutler’s voters in 2010 were a combination of people who wanted him as their first choice for governor and people who were voting for him to try to stop LePage. The latter group isn’t supporting him now.

Explanations 1 and 2 shouldn’t surprise anyone, but here’s an example that shows how strong was the desire among some 2010 Cutler voters to prevent LePage from winning.

I talked to a voter this weekend who so wanted to stop LePage in 2010 that the voter worked to change an early vote from Mitchell to Cutler. This voter is a Michaud voter today.

3. Cutler wasn’t able to convert those anybody-but-LePage voters — and even lost some supporters — because he didn’t demonstrate his political leadership in the LePage years.

One of Cutler’s main arguments for himself is that he is a leader that can bring the parties together. But all he did in that respect in the last four years was to form an organization that holds panel discussions.

That’s what one former supporter complained about when explaining why he doesn’t support Cutler this time. Tony Brinkley said:

Through my work with OneMaine, I have had the chance to see Cutler clearly enough to take his measure. He has proven that he is candidate, not a leader. Again and again as a leader, he has been absent without leave.

This time, I hope none of us will be fooled. I wonder if any other candidate for governor in recent Maine history has ever made greater claims based on fewer accomplishments? [source]

You can only point to being a staffer for Sen. Muskie (or what Cutler calls, “helping Muskie write the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts,” which was 40 years ago) for so long — especially when Dem. candidate Mike Michaud has a long history of working as a collaborative political leader.

4. Cutler’s appeal in 2010, besides as the candidate who was seen as more able to beat LePage, came out of his directness and policy wonkery — neither of which are as apparent or appealing this time.

There’s no doubt that Cutler has had a number of clear statements. However, there’s more of an edge of anger to them this time around, which can interfere with his message.

Again Cutler has put out policy ideas. But when you compare, say, Cutler’s agriculture plan to Michaud’s farm and fisheries plan, Cutler’s lacks detail. Michaud not only has goals but also presents action items for each goal, along with the estimated cost and means of funding.

5. LePage’s base is firm, which sets up the anybody-but-LePage vote goals.

When having the sitting governor put at risk tens of millions of dollars in federal money for mismanaging a hospital doesn’t turn away purportedly fiscally conservative voters — among many issues with LePage’s governorship and “unique” style — it’s clear his base isn’t going anywhere.

And LePage continues to cultivate and activate his base by, for instance, nominating Susan Dench to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees.

6. Michaud started in a stronger poll position than 2010 candidate Mitchell and has built a strong campaign, including attracting key endorsements.

Michaud would need to fall quite a lot for the 2010 dynamic — of Cutler attracting anybody but LePage voters — to repeat. Given Michaud’s strong base of support and history of leadership and relationships in the state, that’s not all that likely.

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Careful readers will note I said it would be “harder” for this dynamic to repeat. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Cutler may be hoping that LePage and his allies will drive Michaud down in the polls so Cutler can again become the anybody but LePage candidate.

But a summer of attacks hasn’t done that and Cutler can’t just wait. His low poll position makes it hard for him to attract support now.

To move up, Cutler would have to start sounding more like the happy policy wonk, Angus King. He would need to stop talking about being a staffer 40 years ago and more about what he did in his long career between working for Sen. Muskie and running for governor in 2010. If he could point to examples of political leadership that brought people together to solve problems, that would be helpful.

Would any of that move the polls in Cutler’s favor? That’s hard to say. But right now, he’s at best attracting at best less than half (and in some polls, less than one-third) of his 2010 vote. No doubt he hoped for better.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.