As campaign season enters its final weekend before the November 2 elections, the congressional race in Maine's First District between Democratic incumbent Chellie Pingree and her Republican challenger Dean Scontras has narrowed to a statistical dead heat.
The most recent Maine Poll, released on October 22, reveals a dramatic tightening of the race. While Pingree's lead declined slightly from 48 to 45 percent, support for Scontras made a significant jump from 33 to 40 percent over a single week. Thirteen percent of polled voters remain undecided.
This differential of five points falls within the poll's margin of error—5.7 percentage points—meaning the race is statistically even just days before the election.
The Maine Poll, conducted by Portland-based Critical Insights for Maine Today Media, is prepared at the 95 percent confidence level. This means that if the poll were conducted 100 additional times, in 95 cases the poll would fall within 5.7 percentage points of the published results.
The Critical Insights poll is based on phone interviews with 600 registered voters. However, this total is reduced to 300 for each congressional race, reflecting the two congressional districts in Maine. Brunswick is located in the center of the First Congressional District, which comprises five coastal counties and runs as far north as Augusta.
Polling from the Second Congressional District, which includes the rest of the state, continued to demonstrate a comfortable lead for Democratic incumbent Michael Michaud over Republican Jason Levesque. Supporters of Michaud polled at 49 percent, in comparison to Levesque's 30 percent.
A poll of Bowdoin student voters, conducted by the Orient from October 25 to 28, showed Pingree support at 68 percent, with Scontras a distant 7.3 percent. Nearly a quarter of respondents, 24.2 percent, remain undecided.
The Orient poll was based on the responses of 328 students to a general e-mail sent out to the student body. Students who indicated that they did not plan to vote in Maine were disregarded, leaving a sample size of 131.
After polling below 50 percent for the first time in late September, Pingree has seen her lead in the First Congressional District steadily evaporate over the last few weeks. According to Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz, this narrowing gap can be partially attributed to Pingree's status as an incumbent Democrat.
"She's a prototypical liberal democrat," he said. "She went to Washington, immediately latched on to the leadership, and in many ways saw the leadership of the Democratic Party as a pathway toward her own leadership."
Pingree's role as the incumbent simultaneously helps and harms her campaign, particularly in an election year marked by voter distrust of Washington politics.
"She has done a very good job as a representative of the district carving out a piece of the pie for her voters," said Franz. "She's a good congressperson, which may be what people don't like to see this year."
"People are questioning the fundamental undercurrents of government," he added.
As Pingree's Republican challenger, Scontras hopes to capitalize on this skepticism in the electorate by pushing a message that spending in Washington is out of control.
Franz noted that Scontras is saying that "the budget is too big, the deficit is too big, and Pingree is part of the problem: He's trying to bring in the Independent voters who could be persuaded by the argument that we need someone to go to Washington and fix the budget."
And while Pingree has to worry about her status as an incumbent, Scontras—who made an unsuccessful bid for the same seat in 2008—must deal with the double-edged sword that is his lack of political experience.
"Scontras was crushed in 2008, and now he's in competition," said Franz. "He doesn't have a tremendous amount of experience, but that's a virtue this year. He's got the indignation down as well."
Native Mainer Steve Robinson '11, co-president of the Bowdoin College Republicans, praised Scontras for his innovative campaign style.
"In the wake of the Obama election, Scontras was one of the first people to recognize that there was a serious deficit of Republicanism on the Internet," said Robinson. "The Republican Project is an internet-based grass roots effort, and he's been one of the pioneers of that."
In contrast to Scontras' activism, Robinson stated that Pingree's "best campaign strategy was to do nothing."
"She's the odds-on favorite," he said. "She refrained from slinging shots at Scontras, which has helped her. Trying to stay out of the noise, good image management...Pingree's been able to control her campaign really well."
Sam Turner '14, a member of the Bowdoin College Democrats and Maine native, agreed with Robinson's assessment of Pingree's campaign, adding that her experience as a small business owner was central to her success.
"I think that she has done well emphasizing her small business experience," said Turner. "Pingree was a small business owner—she still is in North Haven—and those are her roots. Maine is a small business economy, and I think she represents their interests in Washington."
In an election year where voter discontent with government is high and every incumbent candidate appears threatened, it is clear that the only definitive answers will arrive on November 2.
"It's the extent to which this tide of change, which is now lapping around Pingree's feet, covers her head," said Potholm. "It's rising, and they have tried to stop it—will it continue to rise?"
The Orient distributed a survey on Tuesday morning via the class e-mail distribution lists and online Student Digest; by Thursday afternoon the survey had received 327 responses. Respondent identity was not verified in any way.
-Seth Walder contributed to this report.