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New Poll: Maine's Hotly-Contested Senate Race Could Be Decided By Ranked-Choice Voting

AP Images
This pair of 2020 file photos shows incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Maine Democrat House Speaker, candidates for U.S. Senate in the Nov. 3 election.

Colby College is out with its latest poll on how Mainers plan to vote in the 2020 elections. The survey asked 847 likely voters about several issues, as well as candidate contests. including the presidential race and the battle for Maine's U.S. Senate seat.

The poll shows Democrat Sara Gideon at 45% and incumbent Republican Susan Collins at 41%, a difference that's nearly within the margin of error of  3.4%.

Non-party candidates also could be a factor, with Max Linn garnering 5% of the vote and Lisa Savage 3%. Another 6% are undecided.

“Our first poll found about 12% unsure about the Senate race, that’s down to 6%," says Colby College professor Dan Shea, who led the polling effort. "Our guess is that each candidate is getting about half of those. It’s remaining really tight.

“Between the ranked-choice voting and the undecided, this is a toss-up race," Shea says. "This is really close. We think it is going to be a nail-biter on election night.”

The survey also found a close presidential race in Maine's 2nd District. In 2016, Donald Trump won the district by 10 points, earning one electoral vote. In this survey, Democrat Joe Biden is leading by 3%.

Shea says statistically, that makes Maine's 2nd District presidential race a dead heat. “It’s going to be nip and tuck up in the 2nd District, I have no doubt about that," he says. "And it’s not a surprise to me, given how close it is, that the president keeps pushing a lot of money into that district.”

Statewide, though, Biden is well ahead of Trump 52% to 39%.

But Shea says the poll raises the possibility that Maine's U.S. Senate race could be decided by ranked-choice voting.

Shea: We're seeing tight races. It's really tight in the state of Maine. Now, in the presidential race we're finding Joe Biden is well ahead statewide, 52% to 39%, but only up by about three points in the 2nd CD [Congressional District]. And that's within the margin of error. That's going to be tight up there. We're finding that in our last poll, and other polling outfits are finding the same thing. It's going to be nip and tuck up in the Second District - I've no doubt about that. And it's not a surprise to me, given how close it is, that the president seems to be pushing a lot of money up into that district. I think the Biden campaign will probably respond soon, along similar lines. You know, there's a number of scenarios, believe it or not, that this election could come down to one electoral vote. So leave no stone unturned, I guess. That's going to be close in the Second District.

Leary: And when you look at the U.S. Senate race, which of course has probably as much attention, if not more, with the amounts of money being spent - that appears to be almost a dead heat. Sara Gideon has a slight lead outside of the margin of error, but certainly not very comfortable.

That's right, Mal. We have Sara Gideon at 45% and Sen. Collins at 41%, with a margin of error of three and a half. So, yeah, you're right - it's essentially the margin of error. We think it's a little closer than some of the other polling firms have found in the last week or two. Maybe a dead heat. There's an interesting issue - the number of independents has actually been cut in half. Our first poll found about 12% unsure about the Senate race, it's down to 6%. Our guess is that each candidate is getting half of those. It's remaining really tight. And then of course, there's this whole issue of ranked-choice voting.

And as part of that, you have the two independents who seem to be doing reasonably well for non-party candidates - Lisa Savage and Max Linn. You polled this time on both of them, and both of them got some numbers.

Yeah, it's a little bit surprising there. They got 8% combined. Max Linn was at 5%, and Lisa Savage is at 3%. But what's really interesting about that, Mal, is there doesn't seem to be any pattern emerging from that, you know. There's some wisdom, traditional wisdom, around the state that maybe, you know, votes for Max Linn, their second choice, might line up with Susan Collins, and the second choice for Lisa Savage might line up with Sara Gideon - there's some of that. But it's not that clear. It's not that simple. It's fascinating. The ranked-choice process is not - it's not lining up exactly the way we might have imagined. One of the issues, I'll tell you, is sort of a methodological issue:  Our sample is 847. Seventy-nine of those would be counted in the second choice of the ranked-choice - that is they didn't vote for either Collins or Gideon on the first option. So our sample is smaller, right? And you divide that essentially in half. So you've got a really small sample size. So it's hard to make any definitive predictions about where they'll line up. But my colleagues and I at Colby are really curious - the numbers don't seem to fit a pattern that we might have expected.

It was interesting that it appeared that both Gideon and Collins had about 8% in terms of that ranked-choice voting outcome.
Yeah, our best guess is that they both pick up a couple points when all is said and done. But, you know, some of the the Savage voters are actually voting for Linn. And some of the Linn voters are voting for Savage. And the expected pattern that, you know, candidates on the left would group, and candidates on the right would group doesn't seem to be true. But here's what we want to say about that. My colleagues and I have been talking a lot about this. We really don't want to go too far in any sort of prediction on that or any sort of assessment on that, again, because the sample is so small. There's only 79 voters - 8% of our sample equals 79 voters - it's really tough to to make any definitive predictions out of such a small sample size.

Yet, of course, the ranked-choice voting could make the difference in terms of who is elected senator.

We think so, it's possible. And remember, there are 6% that is undecided still. We think between the ranked-choice voting and the undecided, this is a toss up race. This is really close. We think it's going to be a nail-biter on election night.

That was Professor Dan Shea speaking about the latest Colby College voter survey.  Shea says another one is planned for next month, just a few weeks before the election.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.