Mainers are more likely to open a bank account than just about anyone else in the country.

There are more doctors here per capita than elsewhere.

We have the best hospitals and the best schools.

We say we’re healthier eaters than other Americans.

We live in the safest state in the country and we have the fewest police officers per capita.

And we own the most cats.

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We have little trust in our government and pay about the least in cellphone taxes.

And according to Forbes magazine, Maine is considered one of the states to avoid when dying because the estate tax takes too big a bite. But at least our heirs are spared.

Unlike New Jersey and Maryland, Maine does not have an inheritance tax.

In a society that treasures lists, there are thousands of “best this” and “worst that” lists that, once released, become indelible in the public eye. And those lists can ultimately paint a company, an industry, a person and even a state like Maine in warm, welcoming colors or in bleak tones.

But not all polls are created equal. Public opinion polls are just that: opinions. Reports and a lot of surveys are based on statistical data, but the real value of opinion polling is how well the information is analyzed, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Wallet Hub, a Web-based arm of Washington, D.C.-based Evolution Finance.

For example, he said, “The dialogue about taxes should not be so much about low taxes and high taxes, but it should be much more about what we get for our tax dollars.”

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Maine, according to Wallet Hub, doesn’t do well on its return on tax investment and is ranked 35th among the 50 states because the taxes are generally high and the infrastructure weak. But tax dollars pay for top schools and law enforcement that polices the absolute lowest violent crime rate in the country.

So, if a person is more interested in good schools and safe communities than good roads, Maine may seem a more attractive place to live, even if the taxes are high, Papadimitriou said.

Of course, he said, people will always use poll and survey data the way it suits them, especially when a company, college, politician or hospital ranks No. 1. That top ranking becomes an instant marketing tool.

He sees it every year when U.S. News & World Report announces its school rankings: Schools that rank well grab on to the good news and those that don’t immediately and vehemently criticize the methodology.

It’s tough to be called the worst.

Consumers should look beyond the top 10 (or bottom 10) schools and look at actual data collected to determine whether a university is best-suited to them, not just statistically best, Papadimitriou urged. “We all have different priorities and different interests,” and polls treat people more like one-size-fits-all.

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The same goes for how polls treat states.

Data vs. opinion

Some polls say Maine has the best high schools, others say it doesn’t. How does a family considering a move to Maine evaluate that information?

Forbes says Maine is a great place to retire, but the magazine also says it’s among the worst places to die. Does that mean retirees should flee before death?

Just because data is available doesn’t always mean context is, too. That context, based on solid methodology, is what makes a good poll.

Papadimitriou’s firm finds Maine is among the most financially literate states in the country, a finding based on educational achievement and long-term banking habits, not on credit scores or bankruptcy filings.

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Why?

Credit scores and bankruptcies are based on volatility of the economy and the market, while literacy is calculated on critical thinking and good financial judgment, according to Wallet Hub’s methodology.

For example, among the nation’s households, Mainers are much more likely to have bank accounts (ranked 4th nationally) than the folks in Mississippi (ranked 51st). And unlike the spendthrifts living in Nevada (ranked 50th), Mainers maintain the third-best sustainable spending habits of any American.

That’s based on data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Commerce, among other sources.

So it’s more report than survey, Papadimitriou said, to declare Maine financially literate. And it’s a report that he turned into easily digestible top 10 and worst 10 lists.

Polls that are based on public opinion are much more subjective, he said.

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Patrick Murphy, president and owner of the Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS Group, is one of Maine’s leading pollsters and a visible player in political polling.

Knowing which polls are good, which are bad and which are just plain awful is difficult to figure out, Murphy said, especially when methodology is not offered.

“Anyone issuing data should be willing to stand up to public scrutiny,” Murphy said, and defend the way the data was collected and analyzed.

“If you don’t know the methodology, the size of the sample, how representative the sample is of the total population that engages in that activity, and don’t know how to analyze the data, then it’s very, very hard to tell how credible it really is,” he said.

Getting that sample ratio right is tough, Murphy said, and it’s made tougher with so many people dropping landlines in favor of cellphones.

Pan Atlantic often uses 20 percent cellphone numbers in its polling, but Gallup goes further, often splitting its polls 50-50 between landlines and cellphones.

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Getting a representative sample, Murphy said, is key to credibility. That means stratifying the sample geographically, economically, by age and gender and by landline or cellphone.

Once Pan Atlantic gets someone on the phone, Murphy said, they’re usually very accommodating about answering questions, much more than, say, the market in greater Boston or New York.

But, there’s always the question of whether people are honest with poll-takers.

Fruits and veggies

For example, in a 2013 Gallup poll, Maine ranked 8th among states that have adopted the most healthful eating habits, with 60 percent of respondents saying they eat five or more servings of vegetables four or more days per week. Vermont topped the list, and Oklahoma straggled in at the bottom.

But Gallup’s results don’t match U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers.

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Only about one-third of Mainers eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables every day, according to the CDC, about the same as Vermont.

CDC data show adults in Washington, D.C., eat more fruits and vegetables than anyone else in the country, and that city didn’t even make Gallup’s top 10.

So, are Vermonters really the healthiest eaters? Or do they just say they are when asked?

Murphy said he’d be inclined to go with the CDC stats, not because there’s anything wrong with Gallup’s methodology, but because people don’t like to reveal poor habits, particularly when it comes to eating and alcohol consumption.

Political animals

Polls are taken on the best places to vacation, best places to work, which state drinks the most coffee and who consumes the most ice cream, and those polls are most often used for marketing.

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“The political polling thing is really where there’s a lot of anger and angst, but that’s because the nature of politics is so highly partisan,” Murphy said, noting that the candidate on the low side of a poll is always going to be unhappy.

Lawyers and college administrators are quick to attack poor polling results, he said, but politicians are the worst.

They’re “literally Dobermans, going after any information they don’t like,” he said. “They will go on the attack, always. They’ll attack you personally, and attack the work.” It’s all part of the job he’s done for the past 29 years.

Within the past several weeks, Pan Atlantic and Rasmussen Reports have released polls that place Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat, in a dead heat for the Blaine House, with independent Eliot Cutler following third. But a poll by the advocacy group MoveOn.org puts Michaud well ahead.

That’s because, Murphy said, when parties or advocates poll using what is called a candidate survey instrument, they often poll to their base and the results can be skewed in their favor.

And any poll that relies on robo-calls is suspect, he said, because robots dial landlines based only on exchanges, not on demographic sampling. Without including cellphones, the poll may not include younger, urban responses. “That’s a real danger,” he said.

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And online “instant” polls are just about useless because there are usually no controls at all.

Looking at the polling that’s been done on the gubernatorial election so far, Murphy said LePage and his advisers have been clever in “harnessing the resources of the Maine Heritage Policy Center” and getting access to data.

“It doesn’t mean they’re always right,” he said, “but they’ve been more effective, probably, than some administrations in doing that,” pointing out that other candidates are free to do the same thing.

Steve Robinson, policy analyst for the MHPC and editor of The MaineWire, said he wishes they would. “We invite all leaders of any partisan stripe to leverage the information” that the conservative think tank has amassed. Just because the group has a stronger connection to conservatives, he said, doesn’t invalidate their databases. In many ways, he said, it would be more valuable for Democrats to use MHPC data because it would separate politics and fact.

But he recognizes that people play to their comfort.

“When we release any kind of public policy report, people on the left will disregard it before they even read it,” he said. “Conversely, there are some people, because they are inclined to agree with what we’re doing, who will support whatever research paper we put out without reading it as well.”

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So, too, with polls.

Once a top-10 or worst-10 list hits the media and is held up as proof of good or bad, Papadimitriou said it’s difficult to change public opinion. Even if the facts say otherwise.

Which means polls that have nothing to do with politics can become wildly political, including here in Maine, and especially when marketed to drive public opinion. There’s a reason for the phrase: “Beware the poll.” 

So check the methodology.

Best high schools

Early this month, U.S. News & World Report issued its annual rankings of best high schools in the country, and Maine was listed at the top, followed by California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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The ranking from this reputable source was warmly welcomed among Maine’s educators and school administrators.

According to the U.S. Census, Maine ranks 8th in the number of students who graduate from high school, with 90.6 percent earning high school diplomas.

The National Center for Education Statistics also ranks Maine high, third in the nation for eighth-grade reading scores, tied with New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota.

But other surveys don’t rank Maine quite as well.

According to schooldigger.com, a site that compiles test scores for every school in every state and ranks schools based on those scores, Maine doesn’t have the best high schools.

In fact, as of April 1, the site ranks Maine 24th in the nation.

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Our high schools are better than most, and the Maine School of Science & Mathematics in Limestone is consistently a shining star, but high schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut rank higher than Maine, as do schools in California, in many other surveys.

The good news is that Gallup ranks Mainers as having more respect for their teachers than most other states, ranked 9th in the country.

Teachers aren’t feeling that love.

The most recent State of America’s Schools report shows that, when asked, teachers say they don’t get much respect at work and that frustration contributes to the high percentage  — between 40 and 50 percent — who leave the profession in the first five years.

Leery of government

Mainers do not trust state government.

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Only 40 percent of Mainers trust Augusta to handle problems. That’s well over the dismal 28 percent level of trust in Illinois (think Chicago), but well below the 77 percent of trusting North Dakotans.

Gallup attributes the low trust in Illinois to the string of governors who have gone to jail, including Rod Blagojevich in 2012 and George Ryan in 2007.

In Maine, Gallup says its poll indicates less trust may be tied to the struggling economy.

Compared to other states, Maine is not considered particularly well-run, according to a 2013 survey by 247wallst.com, which ranked states best to worst.

Maine was 30th — on the worst side — because of high debt per capita, low median household income, a middling poverty rate and a higher percentage of the state budget spent on public welfare than other states spend.

Maine spends about a third of the entire budget on welfare; other states, on average, spend a quarter.

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Maine is ranked 4th highest in the nation for households reliant on food stamp benefits.

Maine also ranks poorly when it comes to risk for government corruption, ranked 5th most at risk in the country.

That ranking, established by the Center for Public Integrity last year, is the result of a national assessment of government transparency, accountability and anti-corruption measures written into statute. No state earned an “A”; Maine was among eight that earned “F’s.”

In Maine, grades were lowest for executive accountability, public access to information, state civil service management, state pension fund management, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure rules and ethics enforcement for top-level state officials.

In particular, the study found secretive budget talks by the state’s Appropriations Committee problematic, as well as the lack of disclosure by private organizations run by lawmakers or spouses of high-level state officials, even if those organizations benefit from government policies or contracts.

The only bright spot in the assessment was an “A” grade for Maine’s internal auditing procedures.

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Safe and peaceful

Maine is, and has been for some years, the safest state in the country.

The Federal Bureau of Identification consistently ranks Maine (when considering murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) with the lowest violent crime rate per resident.

The state with the highest violent crime rate is Tennessee, with more than four times the crime rate in Maine, but the mayhem there is dwarfed by the level of crime in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital registers more than double the violent crime in any other state.

Louisiana has the most murders per capita. It also has the most police officers per capita.

When it comes to property crimes, which include burglary, theft and arson, Maine does less well, ranked 15th in the nation per capita behind Idaho, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, among others, according to the FBI.

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Even so, Maine ranks tops in the nation as the most peaceful state, and has since 2000, according to 247wallst.com.

The Institute for Economics and Peace defines “peacefulness” as the absence of violence and the presence of institutions that combat violence, including police officers.

Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country and the fewest police per capita. The total annual cost of addressing violence in-state is $801 million, compared to $9.82 billion spent in the most murderous state: Louisiana.

Maine has consistently ranked high in its sense of well-being, starting in 1931 when it placed 13th in a ranking established by H.L. Mencken and Charles Angoff.

The two researchers may have touched off America’s love of polls and rankings with their compilation of best and worst states using definable “livability” standards.

And in all the time since, Maine’s happiness ranking has remained high. Last year, a CNBC survey ranked Maine 5th in the nation for its happiness and quality of life.

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The worst? Louisiana.

Gallup recently polled Americans on whether people would move if they could. More than 75 percent of Mainers said they would not, making us the least likely to move than anyone else in the country.

Even with all this happiness, Mainers’ life expectancy is not terribly high.

The state ranks 23rd in the nation in life expectancy, at 79.2 years, which is more than four years longer than Mississippians and about two years shorter than Hawaiians.

And the rate of people living here who are divorced is second only to Nevada, with 13 of every 1,000 adults divorced, according to the CDC. The national average is 3.6 per 1,000.

Quality health care

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The safest hospital in the country — yes, the country — is tiny Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, according to a Consumer Reports ranking released March 27.

It’s in good company.

On Tuesday, and for the second year in a row, Leapfrog Group’s Annual Safety Score Survey — which didn’t rank Miles — placed Maine at the top of its safest-hospitals-in-the-country list based on self-reported data about surgeries, nursing staff, hygiene and patient satisfaction.

Fourteen of the 19 Maine hospitals ranked received an “A” grade, including Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston and Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.

Maine Medical Center in Portland and MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta both received “C” grades.

Mainers also rank very well in the largest number of people who carry health insurance, slotted 6th in the nation by the U.S. CDC.

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Thanks to Maine’s health care system, the state’s infant mortality rates and low-birth-weight rates are very low, ranked 9th and 7th best, respectively.

And Maine’s smoking rate of 20.5 percent is lower than the national average of 30.2 percent of adults.

The highest smoking rate is in Kentucky — not a surprise since its one of the largest tobacco-growing states — where 30.2 percent of the population smokes.

Perhaps our best hospital ranking has some bearing on the fact that Mainers, generally speaking, suffer from colds and flu less often than elsewhere in the country.

According to a February Gallup poll, residents of Nevada suffer from the flu more than anyone else and Vermonters the least. Maine falls in the middle, but still under the national average of 2 percent of people reporting having the flu on any given day in 2013.

Gallup’s theory is that one of the reasons for the higher flu rates in Nevada, California, New York and other states may be because people are less able to afford flu shots or to have access to the shots.

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Mainers have greater access to shots, but maybe that’s because residents are better insured.

Montana is the state that suffers most from cold symptoms, and Arizona the least. Again, Maine falls about in the middle and about a half-percent below the national average.

Maine also has a higher rate of doctors per capita than elsewhere in the country, according to Bankrate, a national aggregator of financial data since 1976, with 278 docs per 100,000 residents.

Bankrate uses the rate of doctors per capita to determine the best places to retire. While Maine’s number of doctors helps its retirement ranking, its cold weather, higher taxes, fewer hospital beds and other negatives result in a 46th-place score for most desirable place to retire.

Other surveys rank Maine much higher, including The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch and Forbes magazine, which each rank Maine among the best places to retire.

Taxes, taxes and more taxes

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Maine, when calculating all annual state and local taxes, is considered among the worst state to be a taxpayer. Wallet Hub ranks Maine 42nd, but when adjusted for cost of living, it drops to 43rd worst in the country.

Maine’s return on taxes paid to the federal government is pretty high, with $1.79 returned for every $1 paid.

North Dakota receives $5.31 for every $1 paid, which Papadimitriou points out as something to watch since the state may be able to lower state and local taxes because it receives disproportionately more federal funding than the rest.

Maine is ranked poorly for its corporate tax burden, according to Tax Foundation data from 2013, but not so bad — 10th least — for sales tax burden.

Our state cigarette tax is above average — 10th highest in the country — at $2 per pack, and we’re near the bottom for state and local cellphone taxes.

Bankrate calculates Maine’s state and local tax burden at 10.3 percent of income, which is the 9th highest in the nation, and that’s before figuring federal taxes, all paid by people whose median household income is $46,709.

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Even with all the taxation, the state of Maine’s debt load is very high, ranked 12th steepest in the country for actual dollars in debt per capita. Massachusetts carries 2 1/2 times Maine’s debt, but then it has five times as many people to pay the bills.

It’s been tough to find work in Maine, as the state’s job growth was ranked 49th least in the country by the Maine Economic Policy Center last week, which is several points more dismal than a Gallup poll that placed Maine 44th last year.

Despite these struggles, Mainers rank 6th highest in homeownership and, according to a Cornell University study, a higher percentage of able-bodied people are employed here than in most other states.

Or so the survey says.

[email protected]

Methodology matters

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The important elements of a credible telephone survey include:

• Sample size;

• Representative sample of population that engages in surveyed activity;

• Sample split between landlines and cellphones;

• Small margin of error; and

• Credibility of pollster.

*Source: Pan Atlantic SMS Group, Portland


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