I’m generally a skeptic about reading “momentum” into polls. Far too often, what people think of as a trend is really just statistical noise. Or even if the trend is authentic, it soon reverses itself.
Momentum may mean something different, however, in three-way races, where a candidate’s perceived viability — or lack thereof — can force voters to make tough strategic choices. Indeed, there can be feedback loops in the polls: the more a candidate’s numbers improve, the more viable he looks, and the less concerned his potential supporters might be about wasting their vote. Thus, his numbers improve further, and the virtuous cycle continues. But if a candidate appears to be losing support, just the opposite can happen.
In Maine, for instance, the Democratic nominee for governor, Libby Mitchell, whom voters had never warmed to, has seen some of her support shift instead to Eliot Cutler, the independent candidate, who has pulled even with her in some polls.
The problem for both Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Cutler is that the conservative Republican in the race, Paul LePage, seems to have 35 percent of the vote locked down, and is a fairly good bet to get to at least 40 percent by Election Day. In addition, another roughly 5 percent of the vote appears bound for fourth- and fifth-party candidates.
The trick for Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Cutler, then, is to get somewhere near 40 percent of the vote when perhaps only 55 percent of it is available to them. It seems to our model that this is too much for Mr. Cutler, who is starting from too far behind in a state where there is a fair amount of early voting. Ms. Mitchell, meanwhile, doesn’t have the momentum — there, I said it — and some of her voters are probably giving a look to Mr. Cutler.
It certainly seems, then, that the race is Mr. LePage’s to lose; the model has his chances improving to 84 percent. I would caution that the model has to do a lot of guesswork with respect to three-way races, which haven’t been common in the past, and so its results probably need to be approached more skeptically than usual. If anything, though, I suspect that Mr. LePage’s chances are a bit better than 84 percent — although also, that Mr. Cutler’s are at least somewhat better than the near-zero chance that our model gives him.
In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the independent candidate who took the lead in our forecast a week ago, Lincoln Chafee, seems to be consolidating it. He is 7 points ahead of his nearest opponent in two new polls, one of which has the Republican, John Robitaille, having moved into second place ahead of the Democrat, Frank Caprio.
Mr. Chafee is rated as a 62 percent favorite by the model. But this forecast, like Mr. LePage’s, may be too conservative, considering the trajectories that each of the candidates are on, and that Mr. Chafee has received a sort of endorsement-by-omission from President Obama in a state in which Mr. Obama is still popular. One potential piece of fallout for the Democrats is that if their turnout is depressed, it could jeopardize the position of their House candidate in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District, David N. Cicilline, who is running barely ahead of his Republican opponent in a new poll.
Another state with a three-way race is Minnesota, although things have been a little calmer there, with the Democrat, Mark Dayton, gradually increasing his margins over the independent Tom Horner, who seems stalled out at about 15 percent of the vote, and the Republican, Tom Emmer. Mr. Dayton is now rated as an 89 percent favorite by our model.
Finally, two brief updates in a pair of two-way races. In California, the much-respected Field Poll has released its final survey, giving Jerry Brown a 10-point lead over Meg Whitman. Ms. Whitman’s chances had already declined so much that this doesn’t have much further effect, but Mr. Brown is now much more likely to win by double-digits than she is to come back.
And in Florida, the lead in our forecast has shifted yet again, this time to the Democrat Alex Sink, who led in two of three new polls released today, perhaps refuting the notion that she would be much affected by a rules violation in the candidates’ debate on Monday.