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Colby Poll misses mark in Gideon-Collins Race; underestimates split-ballot

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” This year, the electorate rewrote the saying:  where Maine went, so it didn’t. The state voted last week to send former Vice President Joe Biden to the White House while reaffirming Republican incumbent Susan Collins to another six years in the U.S. Senate.

Although the presidency was forecasted to tip blue—and it did—Maine’s Senate race lampooned predictions, which consistently favored Collins’ Democratic opponent and Speaker of the Maine House, Sara Gideon, to win last Tuesday.

A mixed phone and online poll designed by Colby Government Department Professors Nicholas Jacobs, Dan Shea, and Carrie LeVan offered one of the final snapshots of Maine’s vote before Election Day. Its results put Gideon narrowly over Collins at 47% to 43%. In reality, Collins routed Gideon 51% to 41%.

“There’s always an error in interpretation,” Professor Jacobs told The Colby Echo from his office in Diamond this Tuesday.

Polls, unlike the real events they simulate, are not one person, one vote. Matching samples to likely voters is an imperfect science that calls for secondary methods.

At the College, the faculty pollsters used a process of demographic weighting to shore up as much outstanding uncertainty.

Professor Dan Shea explained, “After the poll is complete, we add or subtract small weights based upon demographics. If we don’t have enough men, each man will have

extra weight.”

This weighting process has been used in many parts of the country as the preferred method for placing equal representation over a broad plane of ideology–all with the hope of capturing the “likely voter.”

In Maine, however, a state with a long history of electing independents and centrists, ideology is

less linear.

While Biden won most of Maine’s electorate through the loyal support of eight counties in Southern Maine, Gideon only managed to secure two–Knox and Cumberland.

The College’s county, Kennebec, offers one of many cases of a Biden-Collins victory. According to Professor Jacobs, the polls failed to capture this phenomenon.  “We missed those voters who were likely to split their ticket.” He added, “in trying to readjust on the fact that four years ago there were all these impassioned… voters who turned out that we thought weren’t going to turn out, I think we over-corrected.”

Professor Shea agrees, “In paying very close attention to strong Trump and loyal Biden supporters…we may have missed the less intense voter.”

Both professors cited the fact that, usually, voters for two parties on one ballot have the lowest turnout and, therefore, carry the least weight in polls. The split-ballot voters in Maine this year broke with the past in two ways: they showed up, and they flipped cities red.

Key to Biden’s triumphant presidential victory was an ability to outweigh rural conservatives with record turnout in high population centers. In Michigan, it was Detroit’s Wayne County. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs secured the race.

While Maine’s rural areas stayed fiercely loyal to the incumbent Senator Susan Collins, the defecting city or two, or three, tipped the lead. Lewiston, Bangor, and the populous southern York county undercut their fellow Democrats when it came to row two. Perhaps thanks to this electorate, Senator Collins stands as one of the few members of the G.O.P. to congratulate–or even partially recognize Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.

Though the College’s poll didn’t accurately weigh the split-ticket voter with likely turnout, Professor Shea cautioned against seeing this shortfall as the only explanation for misleading forecasts. “It’s also possible that the race changed in the last ten days.”

This theory has support in a secondary question from the poll asking whether they would rather a senator with “deep rural roots,” or one “from more populated areas.” Participants overwhelmingly favored a rural candidate, 63% to 37%.

Senator Collins, born in rural Aroostook County’s largest town, Caribou, emphasized her upbringing in the final push to Election Day. Her campaign ran a repeating late stage ad showing supporters praise the Senator’s “county girl” sensibilities, using the nickname for Aroostook. Gideon was born in

Rhode Island.

Native birth in a state goes a long way with voters. Professor Jacobs pointed out that 50% of Americans feel that it’s important or somewhat important that their representative be born in the district they represent.  He added “Mainers, at least in that forced choice environment, are a little higher than the average.”

This variable wasn’t factored into the weighting of the College’s poll, and only entered into the rhetoric of the race as a controversial last gasp.

Despite meticulous polling, the unexpected Republican victory in Maine lowered the chances of a Democratic of the U.S. Senate, which now rests on the results of two upcoming runoff elections in Georgia. This year, Maine stands alone in electing a Democratic President and Republican Senator. As Maine went, so might go the nation.

~ Donovan Lynch ‘22

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