U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (right) and State Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, a candidate for the 2nd District Congressional seat. Credit: Micky Bedell and Robert F. Bukaty

AUGUSTA, Maine — Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden is favored to beat U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in a ranked-choice voting count that could decide the tight race in the 2nd Congressional District, according to exit polling conducted by the Bangor Daily News.

With 95 percent of precincts reporting to the BDN, Poliquin, a two-term Republican, had 46.2 percent of votes to 45.7 percent for Golden, a Democrat. Because no candidate earned a majority of the first round vote, the election is moving to a ranked-choice count that Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office has begun today in Augusta.

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It means the spotlight is now on the 8 percent of voters who picked a nonpartisan candidate as their first choice in the 2nd District race. Their later-round choices between Golden and Poliquin likely will decide the election when Dunlap’s office finishes the count next week.

Though Poliquin has a lead now, that crucial group of independent voters leans heavily toward Golden, according to an exit poll of 534 voters in eight 2nd District municipalities on Election Day administered by the BDN during the first statewide ranked-choice voting election in U.S. history. The poll was funded and analyzed by FairVote, an electoral reform group that supports ranked-choice voting and done in consultation with Colby College.

[An interactive timeline of ranked-choice voting in Maine]

Nine-tenths of voters expressing a preference between the party candidates chose Golden over Poliquin in our exit poll. Poliquin’s lead over Golden stood at roughly 1,500 votes with 22,500 votes going to left-leaning independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, according to unofficial returns reported to the BDN by late Thursday.

Golden is expected to overtake Poliquin’s lead in the reallocation because of heavy support from that pool of voters, according to the exit poll. FairVote used real first-round results and exit polling data weighted by age and gender to project the second round of ranked-choice voting.

Of the 15,500 people who voted for the independents and remain in play during reallocation in this model, Golden would win 93 percent of them to Poliquin’s 7 percent. The remaining 6,650 voters — or 31 percent of total independent voters — are projected to have “exhausted” their ballots — meaning they didn’t rank a preference between party candidates. This scenario gives Golden a win with nearly 52.2 percent of votes.

This may be too high of an estimate for Golden, but we think he only needs a slim majority of Bond and Hoar votes to overtake Poliquin. We don’t want to be too definitive about that Golden estimate based on our exit polling model that focuses on a small sample of 2nd District voters — particularly when we get down to the much smaller number in the survey of those who backed Bond or Hoar.

That’s why we’ve devised a tool that allows you to use real first-round results and our exit polling weights to experiment with two variables we can only estimate for now: the re-allocations of Bond and Hoar voters to Golden and Poliquin and the share of exhausted ballots.

In our default scenario, Golden needs at least 55 percent of the remaining Bond and Hoar voters to eke out a win over Poliquin, meaning that our 93 percent estimate could be off significantly and things would still favor the Democratic challenger.

This doesn’t take into account a possible recount or legal challenges. These first-round results are partial for now. Dunlap’s office expects to complete the ranked-choice count next week. A potential recount after that could take two weeks. On Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage also urged Poliquin to sue if the ranked-choice system costs him the election, though it’s unclear what kind of a case Republicans could make. Our analysis is only as good as the data we have now.

Exit polling was conducted by students at eight Maine universities and colleges in both congressional districts. In the 2nd District, they were Nina Mahaleris and Nick Gillert in Bangor, Thomas Young in Jay, Quinn Galletta in Lincoln, Molly Riportella in Sidney, Becca Pelletier in Searsport, Kevin Fitzpatrick in Southwest Harbor, Liam Brinkler in Rangeley and Lucas Dwornik in Kingfield. The municipalities were among a randomly selected group.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...