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Three Big Questions in NY-23

Let me declaim that the utterly fascinating special election in NY-23 has become nearly impossible to forecast. Special elections, with their low turnout, are intrinsically pretty difficult to predict. So are multi-candidate races. And certainly, races where there are substantial late-breaking developments — such as the Republican candidate dropping out four days before the election and endorsing her Democratic rival — present especial difficulties for forecasters. Here, you have all three of those circumstances, producing a perfect storm of uncertainty. Not only will I not be surprised if either Democrat Bill Owens or Conservative Doug Hoffman wins on Tuesday — I will not be surprised if one of them wins by a substantial, possibly even double-digit margin.

With that said, here are what seem to be the three critical questions as we near the finish line:

1. Would Dede Scozzafava have dropped out if she thought it would hurt the Democrat Owens, whom she’s endorsed?

The conventional wisdom after Scozzafava dropped out, but before she endorsed Owens, was that this would help Doug Hoffman. Hence Scozzafava was praised by the likes of Sarah Palin, who has endorsed Hoffman, for acting “selflessly”, along with a host of other Republicans.

I have argued that this thinking is superficial. There are a lot of moderates in NY-23 — most of whom are registered as Republicans. And there are a lot of ticket-splitters; consider that retiring Republican incumbent John McHugh got 65 percent of the vote last November whereas John McCain got 47 percent. That means that at a bare minimum, 18 percent of the electorate split their ticket, a figure which perhaps not coincidentally is nearly identical to the 20 percent support that Scozzafava had held before she exited the race.

Scozzafava’s remaining supporters were mostly registered Republicans, but they also had mostly positive views of Barack Obama, and negative views of both Owens and Hoffman. Yesterday, when it looked like Scozzafava was going to endorse Hoffman, I posited that 30 percent of her support would go to Hoffman, 20 percent to Owens, and the remaining 50 percent would either vote for Scozzafava anyway or would sit the election out. If we reverse those numbers in the wake of her endorsement of Owens, that would make the contest Owens 44, Hoffman 41, Scozzafava 5, extrapolating from the Siena poll issued late last week — still, obviously, anybody’s race.

Obviously, the question I’ve posed is rhetorical. If Scozzafava wants Owens to win (or perhaps more accurately, wants Hoffman to lose), why would she have left the race unless she felt that the combined effect of her quitting and her endorsing Owens would be beneficial to him on balance?

Indeed, I think Owens is probably in a better position than he was 48 hours ago. Endorsements don’t usually matter very much, but with Scozzafava’s exit from the race, you suddenly have as much as 30 percent of the electorate up for grabs and undoubtedly feeling very, very confused. Plus, the endorsement was unexpected (although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, since Scozzafava is much closer ideologically to Owens than to Hoffman), which might make it more impactful.

2. What type of electorate will show up?

The reason that I’m not willing to bravely declare Owens the favorite, however, is because turnout is unusual in special elections, and we don’t know who is going to show up on Tuesday. If it’s Siena’s electorate — an electorate in which voters view Barack Obama favorably by a 59-37 margin — then I’d say that Owens is indeed the favorite, perhaps as much as a 2:1 favorite. But other pollsters have a different view of the electorate — Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling, for instance, finds that NY-23’s likely voters have a net negative view of Obama. With that electorate, Hoffman would be favored, perhaps substantially — and Jensen, indeed, hints that his poll will show a significant lead for Hoffman when it is released tonight.

PPP’s polls are “different” in a couple of ways: firstly, they’re automated (“robocall”) polls, and secondly, they use registered voter lists which they purchase from states or third parties, rather than the random digit dial (RDD) method. PPP did pretty well in 2008 and I have a high opinion of them. This year, in spite of being mainly a Democratic polling firm, they’ve shown better numbers for Republicans than most other pollsters — both in NY-23 and elsewhere. They could perfectly well be right and they could perfectly well be wrong — frankly, they have a lot riding on Tuesday’s contests. But the point is, they’re not just showing a more favorable result for Hoffman in isolation — they’re showing it as a consequence of the more conservative electorate which they expect to come to the polls on Tuesday.

3. Who should Democrats be rooting for?

If nothing else, Scozzafava’s endorsement of Owens raises what had already been fairly high stakes in terms of the national environment. And another bit of conventional wisdom that has developed, articulately stated by Frank Rich and Stu Rothenberg among others, is that Democrats should be rooting for Hoffman because it will embolden conservatives to nominate more conservative, but less electable Republican candidates in other races.

Insofar as that thinking goes, it seems to me to be almost indisputably correct — a Hoffman win could have implications for the Republican Senate primary in Florida, perhaps the 2012 nomination contest, and other races where Republicans have the choice between more ideologically correct (Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin) and more electable alternatives (Charlie Crist, Mitt Romney).

On the other hand, do Democrats really want to be celebrating if an extreme conservative like Hoffman — who, by the way, is not an especially good candidate — is able to win a very middle-of-the-road district like NY-23? Sure, Hoffman would be very vulnerable as an incumbent (which might be a moot point anyway since NY-23 is liable to be redistricted out of existence.) But if a Glenn Beck-ian conservative is able to win a district that shares a frontier with Vermont and Canada, ought that not be at least a little bit worrying for Democrats in terms of the mood of the country?

The best-case scenario for the Democrats would seem to be a very narrow Owens win, which would leave conservatives feeling plenty empowered (and with plenty of people — notably Scozzafava — to blame) but would still give Democrats the seat in the Congress and leave them feeling less worried about the upside potential of conservative populism.

The “extreme” conservatives do have a few electoral advantages over the moderates: more capacity to generate high turnouts amongst their base, more differentiation from the establishment, and arguably a “fresher” message (even if it’s all in the packaging). If Hoffman does win by some margin, it won’t be so clear that these conservatives are in fact less electable than their more moderate Republican brethren, at least in terms of 2010.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.