The latest poll numbers in the remarkable District 23 upstate New York congressional race shows the contest too close to predict, with Conservative Doug Hoffman holding a 41 to 36 percent lead over Democrat Bill Owens — close to the Sienna Research Institute survey's uncertainty margin of 4 percent.
Observers say the race could go either way, depending on how District 23's swelling ranks of undecided voters break in the next 24 hours.
A series of dramatic events has rocked voters in recent days. On Saturday, Hoffman's surge in the polls prompted GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava to pull out of the race.
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The GOP establishment initially welcomed the move, praising Scozzafava for putting the party's interests before her own, and endorsed Hoffman.
Then on Sunday, Scozzafava embarrassed party officials by throwing her support to Democrat Owens.
The Siena Research poll released Monday morning shows that District 23's undecided voters have swelled from 9 percent to 18 percent — suggesting the electorate still is reeling from the weekend's dramatic turn of events.
"With nearly one in five voters undecided the day before Election Day, and voters still trying to comprehend the dramatic withdrawal of Scozzafava and her subsequent endorsement of Owens, this is still a wide-open race," said Sienna pollster Steven Greenberg.
"The two candidates and campaigns are both in a sprint to try and convince these undecided voters to support them," Greenberg said. "Whichever campaign succeeds in convincing the undecided voters and then getting them to the polls tomorrow, will likely be looking at a victory tomorrow night."
The Siena poll was conducted Sunday, and it would have included some voters who were unaware that Scozzafava threw her support to Owens. It is based on telephone surveys of 606 likely voters.
In a further indication the District 23 electorate is in flux, the Sienna college poll differs drastically from a poll of 1,747 likely District 23 voters conducted by Public Policy Polling. That survey was taken on Nov. 1 and Oct. 31 -- the day Scozzafava announced she was bowing out of the race. It showed Hoffman with an overwhelming 17-point lead, 51 percent to 34 percent.
Owens is running into serious political headwinds. President Obama's approval rating in the district has plummeted to 39 percent. Democratic turnout, moreover, is shaping up to be anemic.
A strong majority of the respondents who told Public Policy Polling they plan to vote Tuesday said they voted for Sen. John McCain in November: 51 percent to 43 percent. Owens will be hard pressed to win the traditionally Republican district unless he can persuade a large majority of undecided voters to fall his way in the campaign's waning hours.
Hoffman appears to have captured the momentum, having picked up 6 points following Scozzafava's decision to pull out. But Greenberg said the race is far from over.
"It appears, however, that the majority of Scozzafava's supporters have gone to neither Hoffman nor Owens," Greenberg said, "but rather into the undecided column, which has doubled since Scozzafava ended her candidacy."
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