Poll: Race To Replace McHugh Is Wide Open

Lots of folks have made up their minds — at least tentatively — about who they’ll vote for in November to replace John McHugh in Congress. But the first independent and credible poll of the Congressional special election shows that this race will come down to the decisions of people who don’t know today who they’ll vote for and who may not even know who the candidates are.

Siena College’s research arm, a regular contributor to political polling, found in a survey released Thursday that Republican Dede Scozzafava of Gouverneur leads the three-way race for Congress with the support of just 35% of those polled on Sunday through Tuesday this week.

Democrat Bill Owens of Plattsburgh is second, at 28%. Conservative Doug Hoffman of Lake Placid is third at just 16% support, but he actually trails the 21% who say they either don’t know who they’ll vote for, or have no opinion.

“This is a wide open race. One in five voters is currently undecided. Add to that the fact that one-third of Scozzafava’s current supporters and one-quarter of Owens’s current supporters say they are not very certain of their choice and that they very well may change their minds between now and Election Day,” Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said.

Support for the candidates is soft; only 6 in ten say they are certain or fairly certain for whom they will vote. The most undecided are younger voters, voters not registered in a political party, and voters in Oswego, Madison and Oneida counties.

The race to replace former Congressman John McHugh was already unusual: None of the top-tier potential candidates, such as State Senator Darrel Aubertine, wanted the job; Republicans needed several ballots before they settled on Scozzafava, whose support for gay marriage and abortion play well enough in a district trending towards the center but runs counter to the more right-wing shift of the national party; Democrats named Owens, who’s not even a registered Democrat and is seen as more conservative than Scozzafava; and Hoffman, after losing the Republican endorsement and offering Scozzafava his support, accepted the Conservative party’s backing to run against her and Owens.

National political groups are involved in this race. The committees for Republican and Democratic members of Congress have each run TV ads backing their candidates and bashing the others. The pro-business conservative group The Club For Growth kicked off a $250,000 media buy this week to support Hoffman by painting both Scozzafava and Owens as tools of Democratic leaders. Scozzafava begins her first TV ads today.

The advertising hasn’t reached saturation levels yet, though, and the poll numbers show it. Only four in ten people polled by Siena said they’ve seen commercials for Scozzafava, about 35% for Owens and fewer than two in ten have seen a Hoffman commercial. Only Owens’ commercials have helped him so far, with a third saying his Tv spots have made it more likely they’ll vote for him.

The numbers also suggest strategy for the campaigns. The 23rd Congressional District is huge, one of the nation’s largest. It covers 11 counties, from Plattsburgh in the far northeast to Hannibal in the southwest corner. It cuts through four media markets — Syracuse, Utica, Wateretown and Plattsburgh — and three regions — the eastern North Country, the western North Country of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, and Central New York’s Oneida, Madison and Oswego counties.

A plurality of the district’s 650,000 people is in Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties.

And that’s where some of the results get interesting.

Scozzafava holds a huge lead, 53% to 23% for Owens and 10% for Hoffman — in her home area of Jefferson, St. Laawrence and Lewis counties. But in Oswego, Madison and Oneida counties, where each of the candidates is a near-complete unknown, Owens earns 30% of the vote, with Scozzafava and Hoffman tied at 20%. In the eastern counties, which is Owens’ home turf, he and Scozzafava are virtually tied.

The most undecided voters are in Oswego, Madison and Oneida counties — three in ten say they don’t know yet for whom they will vote — and that could explain the outsized amount of money the campaigns are spending on Syracuse TV and radio.

Owens has one more ace up his sleeve. A third of those polled said an endorsement from President Obama could swing their vote to Owens. Half of all Democrats in the poll said it would, and 20% of Republicans said it would. Presidents rarely get involved in Congressional races.


Here’s Scozzafava, whose campaign sent out a statement before the poll came out to lower expectations for her numbers:

“”Despite the fact Dede has been under constant attack by her opponents and their special-interest backers since John McHugh was confirmed, Dede is running strong. Today’s poll reaffirms that Dede is the only candidate in this race with the solid base needed to win and build upon the legacy of John McHugh….Doug Hoffman can’t win. A vote for him is a vote for Nancy Pelosi.”

Owens: “Polls come and go, but we remain focused on our own campaign. Bill will continue traveling the district to talk about his plans to promote job creation, keep Fort Drum strong, and protect our farmers and their families once he’s in Congress. The support we have received so far has been overwhelming, and we expect it will only grow as more Upstate New Yorkers learn about Bill’s record of creating jobs and his service at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.”

Hoffman: “The Siena Research Institute Poll is right when they say: “this is a wide open race.” Poll after poll has shown that. In the weeks ahead our ads and direct mail will focus on Doug Hoffman’s common sense conservative values of cutting spending, the deficit and taxes. When voters get to know Doug Hoffman they will realize he is the real Republican in this race.”


MSNBC’s First Read political newsletter:

Could Republicans splitting their votes between Hoffman and Scozzafava tip the race to the Democrat in the race, Bill Owens? We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Outside of watching the Obama administration’s ups and downs, the most intriguing political story in America could very well be the infighting inside the Republican Party.

The conservative blog Redstate’s Erick Erickson:

Republican Presidential contenders like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin should charge up to New York and support Doug Hoffman — he may not have an “R” next to his name, but he is a better representative of the party of Lincoln and Reagan than Dede Scozzafava could ever hope to be.

And a surprising “endorsement” from liberal blog Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas:

If Republicans lose the seat, it’ll dent that sense of momentum they believe is headed their way. If they win the seat, it will have been with a liberal Republican, suggesting that their path to electoral relevance in the northeast is to ditch the Southern-fueled ultra conservatism. Both are good for us.

If the Democrat loses the race, we lose nothing — it was previously held by a Republican. If he wins the seat, we gain another obnoxious Blue Dog, undermining our caucus from within while adding just a single vote to our already dominant House majorities. …

So it’s official, I’m rooting for the Republican to win.

New ads:

Here’s the Club For Growth’s new ad for its $250,000 ad buy, which North Country Public Radio notes is similar to an earlier ad for another Club-backed candidate:

And Dede Scozzafava’s first ad, out today: