Democrat Kathy Hochul has taken a four-point lead over Republican Jane Corwin ahead of Tuesday’s closely-watched special congressional election in New York, according to a Siena College poll released Saturday.
Hochul leads Corwin among likely special-election voters, 42 percent to 38 percent in the Empire State’s normally Republican-leaning 26th Congressional District, where GOP plans to privatize Medicare have become a central issue in a campaign that’s proven an unexpected boon to the western New York district’s struggling economy — in the form of millions of dollars in campaign expenditures from the national parties and outside interest groups.
Nearly two-thirds of voters say they are absolutely certain for whom they will vote, and Hochul’s supporters are slightly more likely to say they are certain to vote for her. Just seven percent of likely voters say they are likely to change their minds between now and the election.
Since Siena’s last poll in late April, the national fundraising arms of both political parties as well as independent fundraising groups have begun carpetbombing the television airwaves in the western New York district. Both Hochul and Corwin have seen an uptick in support, while independent and self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate Jack Davis’ numbers have plummeted.
In Siena’s first survey, Davis took 23 percent of the vote, but that’s been cut in half following attacks by Tea Party and Republican groups. In the latest poll, Davis registers 12 percent of the vote. Green Party candidate Ian Murphy takes 1 percent, while 7 percent are still undecided.
Hochul’s increased support comes from across the board. Most notably, she’s now winning independent voters, 44 percent to 36 percent, while Davis takes 16 percent. In April, Corwin led among independents 34 percent, with Hochul taking 26 percent and Davis taking 27 percent.
The driving issue of Hochul’s campaign is Medicare. The Erie County Clerk has seized on the perceived unpopularity of a budget plan, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would revamp Medicare for those under 55. A slim plurality of likely voters now identify it as the top issue for them in deciding their vote. Twenty-one percent identified Medicare as the single most important issue for them in the campaign, and of those who did, 74 percent are backing Hochul. Twenty percent cited jobs as key, and Hochul is actually winning that category too, a narrow 34 percent to 32 percent for Corwin. But of the 19 percent who identified the federal budget deficit as their main priority, Corwin wins overwhelmingly – 60 percent to just 18 percent for Hochul.
In its April survey, Siena asked voters whether they supported cutting federal spending by lessening entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security – and 59 percent opposed that plan. That question was not repeated in this survey.
But there was another sign of the Medicare issue’s resonance: Hochul has expanded her lead in voters 55 and over, now winning that demographic — usually a GOP stronghold — 45 percent to 37 percent. In April, Hochul had a 3 point advantage over Corwin among older voters. Corwin leads those voters under 55, 41 percent to 36 percent.
Another potentially significant indicator: President Obama has seen his support rise in the western New York congressional district, perhaps as a result of the capture of Osama bin Laden–an especially important issue throughout the state that was most affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. While the president had a 57 percent unfavorable rating at the end of April, his favorable/unfavorable are now tied at 48 percent apiece.
Davis, a wealthy businessman who’s run for the seat three times as a Democrat, was the subject of early Republican ads that began airing in the district last week designed to discredit his conservative credentials after Republicans began believing his candidacy threatened Corwin’s bid in a relatively solid GOP district.
While those ads from Corwin and national GOP groups appear to have chipped away at his support and driven up his negatives, Davis is still drawing nearly equally from both major parties – getting support from 13 percent of Republicans, 10 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of independents. But Davis’s negatives now register the highest of the three candidates. While nearly split in Siena’s last poll (42 percent favorable/41 percent unfavorable), his unfavorable rating has skyrocketed to 64 percent, with just 28 percent of respondents saying they had a favorable view of Davis.
Negative publicity — in the form of both ads and news coverage of a video scuffle between Davis and Corwin’s legislative chief of staff — has also taken a toll on the Republican candidate. Corwin, a New York state legislator, had a 44-percent favorability rating in Siena’s poll, compared to a 31-percent unfavorability rating. Now 49 percent of those polled said they view her unfavorably, with 43 percent having a favorable view. For Hochul, the trend is reversed. A majority of likely voters — 55 percent — now have a favorable impression of Hochul, up from 44 percent in the previous poll.
Voters surveyed still view the race as a toss-up, and the ground game will remain important for both parties in the campaign’s final days. When asked, regardless of who they supported, which candidate they believed would win the race, respondents split at 41 percent apiece between Corwin and Hochul.
This is only the second public non-partisan poll in the race, following Siena’s April survey. An internal poll from Hochul’s campaign two weeks ago showed the Democrat had pulled within one point of Corwin. A May 9 IVR survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, sponsored by Daily Kos and SEIU, also showed Corwin with a 4 point lead, 35 percent to 31 percent, but with Davis taking 24 percent.
The new Siena poll was conducted May 18 through May 20; 639 likely special-election voters were surveyed, for a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent.
Steven Shepard contributed to this report