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Poll Showing Gains by Paladino Excluded Key Candidate From Ballot

A new poll this morning from Rasmussen Reports suggests significant tightening in the New York governor’s race. The poll has the Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, ahead 54 percent to 38 percent against Carl P. Paladino, the boisterous Buffalo businessman who soundly won the Republican primary last week against Rick Lazio. In the previous Rasmussen Reports poll, taken before the primary, Mr. Cuomo led Mr. Paladino by a much larger margin: 58 to 29.

It would not be surprising to see the race tighten. Open-seat races for governor are rarely complete blowouts, and tend to tighten down the stretch when one candidate has a large lead. Some political reporters here at The Times also expect Mr. Paladino’s deficit to close, as the sense is that Mr. Cuomo — who so far, has refused to accept Mr. Paladino’s invitation for a debate — seems to be sitting on his lead and running out the clock. And it is not uncommon for a candidate to improve in the polls as his name recognition improves, as it presumably did for Mr. Paladino after he won his primary.

Still, there is one clear flaw with this poll, which is that it did not include an option for Mr. Lazio, who – even as he lost to Mr. Paladino among Republicans — won the Conservative Party’s nomination for governor and is expected to remain in the race. The Conservative Party is a big deal here in New York because of fusion voting, which allows multiple parties to endorse the same candidate on the ballot (Mr. Cuomo, for instance, is the nominee of the Democrats, as well as the liberal Working Families’ Party). Some voters in New York look toward the endorsements of the Conservative Party and the Working Families’ Party when filling out their ballots, and they can sometimes tip the outcome in a race.

But sometimes, the Conservative Party and the Republican Party split, as they have in this case — and this can have a much bigger influence on the outcome. In the special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District last year, for instance, an especially strong Conservative Party nominee, Douglas L. Hoffman, eventually led the Republican, Dede Scozzafava, to quit the race, and Mr. Hoffman finished a close second to the Democrat, Bill Owens.

In this case, the argument for including the Conservative nominee — Mr. Lazio  – is especially strong. Having won election to the U.S. House four times, and having been the Republican nominee in a contentious U.S. Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000, he is the more familiar commodity to New Yorkers. Moreover, a previous poll, from Siena College, which tested Mr. Lazio on the Conservative ballot line, actually showed him doing better than Mr. Paladino on the Republican line in a three-way race (although with only 16 percent of the vote to Mr. Paladino’s 14.)

I asked Scott Rasmussen why he had not included Mr. Lazio in his poll. He said it was a “judgment call” and that the decision probably should not matter, since Mr. Cuomo retains a clear lead. “Cuomo is over 50% in every survey, it’s New York, and it’s hard to see anything that would change the expected outcome,” Mr. Rasmussen wrote in an e-mail. He said  Mr. Lazio might be included in future editions of the poll.

Mr. Rasmussen is right that the outcome of the election is not in that much doubt: even if the gap between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Paladino is as little as 16 points, a deficit like that is simply not easy to make up in an abbreviated, six-week campaign, particularly when the leading candidate is given well more than 50 percent of the vote.

Over the weekend, Mr. Rasmussen wrote an op-ed column for The Daily News in which he forecast that the race would tighten and criticized “pundits, political experts and commentators” for underestimating Mr. Paladino’s chances, and the strength of the Tea Party (which backs Mr. Paladino) here in New York.

Although Mr. Rasmussen’s poll of the New York race was in the field on Thursday, he said he had not seen the results at the time he wrote the Daily News piece. But without geting into a larger debate about whether it is proper for pollsters to also serve as prognosticators, Mr. Rasmussen’s prediction of a tightening race is likely to have seemed less prescient had he also included Mr. Lazio in his poll. Since Mr. Lazio will generally draw from the same pool of conservative-leaning voters that Mr. Paladino does, a poll with him included might have read something like — and this is just a rough guess — Mr. Cuomo 52 percent, Mr. Paladino 26 percent and Mr. Lazio 14 percent. Such a result would not have provided much of an indication of momentum for Mr. Paladino.

At the very least, Rasmussen Reports could have tested the contest both as a head-to-head matchup between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Paladino — and also as a three-way matchup with Mr. Lazio included. Pollsters are sometimes too reluctant to run multiple versions of their poll, like reporting results both among registered voters and those most likely to vote.

Mr. Rasmussen is sometimes accused of wanting to “push a narrative” at the expense of what should be a pollster’s goal, which is to reflect public opinion in the electorate he is testing as fairly and accurately as possible. Conducting this poll without including Mr. Lazio might not quiet his critics.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.