SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn has spent a political lifetime fine-tuning his image as a government reformer, but a new Early & Often Poll shows Republican Bruce Rauner may have wrested that mantle away from the governor.

The incumbent Chicago Democrat also has spent months trying to portray the multimillionaire private equity investor from Winnetka as an out-of-touch “billionaire,” yet voters in Illinois appear evenly split about which gubernatorial candidate best understands their everyday concerns.

And while Quinn again finds himself down by double digits in this latest poll by We Ask America, Illinoisans gave a decisive nod to Quinn running mate Paul Vallas over Republican Evelyn Sanguinetti as the best qualified lieutenant governor candidate to take over in the event of an emergency. 

Those are some of the main findings in an automated telephone poll of 1,085 likely voters conducted for the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal by We Ask America, an independent subsidiary of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

The poll had Rauner ahead of Quinn by a nearly-51-percent-to-38-percent spread with 11 percent undecided. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Those findings are consistent with recent polling by We Ask America, but they differ from surveys done within the past two weeks by Quinn’s own campaign and the Illinois Education Association, the teachers union that has endorsed the governor and opposed Rauner in the GOP primary. Those had Quinn trailing Rauner by 1 and 4 percentage points, respectively.

POLL DETAILS: The Early & Often Poll is based on a random sample of 1,085 likely Illinois voters in the Nov. 4 election. It is an automated poll conducted by We Ask America. Respondents were contacted by telephone on Wednesday, August 6, 2014. About 28 percent were reached on their cellphones. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.12 percentage points, larger for demographic subgroups.

Gregg Durham, We Ask America’s chief operating officer, predicted a much closer race between Rauner and Quinn come Nov. 4 despite his organization’s polling that currently shows a formidable lead for the Republican challenger.

“While Mr. Rauner continues to enjoy a 13-point lead, this race will certainly tighten dramatically barring any unforeseen events. An incumbent governor in a state with the sizable problems Illinois has often suffers in early polls with those who would have a tendency to back his party but may be disappointed with his performance,” Durham said.

“However, those same voters usually ‘come home’ on election day. Keep that in mind,” he said.

With 85 days left until the election, Quinn appears to have been damaged by the drip-drop coverage surrounding his failed $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative anti-violence grant program that is now under federal investigation.

Serious mismanagement with that 2010 program was identified in a February audit by Auditor General William Holland that spawned a succession of revelations about NRI grant funds going to the politically connected or to suspect social-service providers with limited state oversight of how money was being spent.

On that issue, Quinn has continually pointed out that he shut down the program two years ago and shuttered the agency that administered it when he learned of the breadth of its problems. But it’s not clear that message of pro-action has reached voters.

Durham’s poll showed that only 21 percent of Illinoisans surveyed considered the governor to be a reformer in a head-to-head match up with Rauner. By contrast, the Republican was named the reform candidate by nearly 47 percent of those surveyed in the phone poll.

“I think Rauner’s claim to ‘shake up Springfield’ may be resonating with voters,” Durham said. “It’s been in his TV ads and a big part of his speeches. Plus, it’s hard for a public official who has been around as long as Gov. Quinn to wear the reform hat when he’s been part of the system so long.”

Much of Quinn’s campaign has centered around trying to create a narrative that Rauner, the multimillionaire private equity investor, is out of touch with middle- and lower-class Illinoisans in spite of wearing  an $18 wristwatch, Carhartt jackets and Wrangler denim jeans.

This past week, for example, Quinn hit Rauner hard over a Chicago Sun-Times report that found the Republican had investments based in the Cayman Islands, a notorious Caribbean tax haven known for tax avoidance. Rauner has insisted he has fully disclosed his ownership stake in those funds and paid any taxes that are due with the state or federal governments.

Yet, Quinn’s attacks on Rauner’s wealth and being out of touch may not be resonating.

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The poll found that when likely voters were asked which of the candidates better understands their everyday concerns, Rauner drew 40 percent compared to 38 percent for the governor. Twelve percent of those surveyed said neither candidate understood.

“I would guess that the issue hasn’t penetrated, and it may never seep in,” Durham said when asked about Quinn’s Cayman Islands criticism and the poll findings. “That one is a bit of a complicated accusation that requires explanation and may just resonate as another ‘rich guy’ accusation.

“Certainly, Quinn will probably fire off accusations of ‘off-shore tax havens,’ but I have no idea if the electorate will find that to be a key issue. Besides, the results on that one may be more of a reflection on Mr. Quinn being a lifelong politician, and politicians aren’t renown for their concerns of everyday life. It would take a lot more probing to know for sure, though,” Durham said.

Rauner’s camp took a measured response to the poll results.

“Democrats, independents, and Republicans in all regions of our state are coming to the same conclusion, that Pat Quinn has failed badly, and Bruce Rauner’s policies will shake up Springfield and bring back Illinois,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said. “We expect the false attacks from Pat Quinn’s campaign to become more desperate and outrageous in the weeks ahead as he does everything he can to try to save his political career.”

Quinn’s campaign, meanwhile, disputed We Ask America’s findings, noting that the polling firm failed to correctly measure the tightness of the March primary in which Rauner narrowly defeated former state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale.

Quinn’s side also took issue with We Ask America’s ties to the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, which has donated $250,000 to Rauner’s campaign. Durham said his polling firm operates independently of the IMA, which also has donated $15,000 to Quinn’s campaign during the past two years. The polling firm is used by several other entities in Springfield, including the Capitol Fax political newsletter.

“This is from the same pollster who was off by 15 points in the Illinois Republican primary,” Quinn campaign spokeswoman Izabela Miltko said. “We don’t put much stock in phony robo-polls conducted by supporters of the governor’s opponent. Legitimate polls have this race neck and neck.”

A deeper dive into the head-to-head data in the poll between Rauner and Quinn shows that the Republican is outscoring the incumbent among both men and women. Rauner also appears to be doing surprisingly well among those who identified themselves as Democrats, spelling potential trouble for the governor.

Nearly 17 percent of Democrats chose Rauner as their preferred option for governor, the poll showed. By contrast, Quinn got the nod from self-identified Republican voters 7 percent of the time.

The survey also has Rauner with a steep advantage among independents. The poll found that nearly 54 percent of those swing voters chose the Republican candidate, compared to nearly 32 percent for Quinn.

Geographically, Quinn appears to be winning in the city by a healthy margin, drawing 69 percent of those surveyed compared to 19 percent for Rauner.

But in suburban Cook, an area in which Quinn must perform well in order to help offset Rauner advantages in the collar counties and downstate, nearly 47 percent of those surveyed favored the Republican compared to just under 43 percent for Quinn.

Rauner leads Quinn 60 to nearly 30 percent in the collar counties. Downstate, Rauner holds a 59 to 28 percent lead over the governor, the poll showed.

Quinn also has hit Rauner hard on troubles involving some of the companies in which his former private equity firm, GTCR, invested. On Friday, for example, the governor demanded answers from Rauner about the circumstances behind the former CEO of a Rauner-linked brokerage firm being indicted on federal fraud charges. Quinn has also hit Rauner for the operation of troubled nursing homes and long-term care facilities owned by GTCR.

But that criticism does not appear to have left voters with the belief that Rauner’s business experience has made him ill equipped to run state government, according to the Early & Often Poll.

When asked which candidate is more likely to solve the state’s budget problems, 49 percent of those surveyed picked Rauner compared to 25 percent for Quinn, nearly a two-to-one advantage.

If there is a glimmer of optimism in the poll for Quinn, it’s that voters seem to have a clear preference for his running mate over Rauner’s.

When asked who was “better prepared to serve as governor if the need arises,” 45 percent of respondents gave the nod to the former Chicago Public Schools CEO, Vallas, who ran for governor in 2002. Wheaton City Councilwoman Sanguinetti drew support from 35 percent of those polled.

“Mr. Vallas’ reputation in the greater Chicago area is a clear benefit to him,” Durham said.