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Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul and Republican Chris Collins are tied in their contest for the 27th Congressional District with just over four weeks until Election Day, according to the latest Siena Research Institute poll conducted for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV.
No nuances like “within the margin of error” or “statistically even” cloud the survey of 633 likely voters conducted Oct. 1-4. The newest measure of voter opinion pegs incumbent Hochul and challenger Collins dead even – 47 percent to 47 percent with 6 percent undecided or not voting.
Even in other key areas of the poll, the pair remain locked. When asked if Hochul should be re-elected or if someone new should go to Washington, 44 percent said re-elected and 44 percent said someone new.
Their favorability ratings also are virtually identical. Forty-seven percent of voters view Hochul favorably and 39 percent unfavorably, while 46 percent see Collins as favorable and 40 percent unfavorable.
It all leads Steven A. Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena College poll, to pronounce the race as tight as tight can be. He added that the contest now boils down to winning over the paltry 6 percent that remains undecided.
“When you think about the millions of dollars being spent by the campaigns and outside groups, it’s all on media aimed at a very narrow group of voters within the 27th Congressional District,” Greenberg said.
That means voters like Karen Jones, 48, an interior designer from Pembroke, may prove crucial on Nov. 6. She has been out of the country for a while, and remains undecided. For the moment, she is listening to the opinions of her adult daughter, a Hochul supporter.
Undecided voters proved a small percentage of the last survey reported by The News and Channel 2 on Aug. 19, and it remains that way in the latest effort. The August poll also showed the pair virtually deadlocked, with Collins at 47 percent and Hochul at 45 percent, well within the 4 percent margin of error (the same as the new poll).
But Greenberg pointed out that voters are now much more engaged in the race, and that the new survey should be accepted with a high degree of confidence because of its consistency with the August poll.
“Everything moved together,” he said of the numbers, noting that while voters preferred Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney 53 to 41 percent in August, the numbers have moved to 51 to 42 percent now – mirroring fluctuations in the new poll.
“That’s what gives me a really good feeling about the survey,” he said.
He also pointed out that few of those who have made up their minds are likely to change, since 89 percent are either certain or fairly certain they will stick with their current choice. That causes the small group of undecided voters and those who could change their minds to loom even larger in the campaign, Greenberg said.
Though Hochul is running even with Collins in the most Republican district in all of New York, Greenberg also said the former Erie County executive should be heartened by voters’ continued rejection of Obama – with whom he links Hochul every chance he gets. In addition, voters prefer GOP control of the House of Representatives by a 53 percent to 41 percent tally.
Collins also posts significant leads in the issues voters traditionally deem most important – fixing the economy, jobs, taxes and tackling the deficit.
“He has an edge on the issues, no question about that,” Greenberg said, while noting that Hochul is preferred 47 percent to 42 percent on who would better represent the community in Washington.
But he also said Hochul is holding her own despite the 8 percentage point registration advantage enjoyed by the GOP, which he attributes to the congresswoman’s “likability” factor.
“Voters like her,” he said, adding that while most voters cast their votes strictly for Democrats or Republicans, he sees enough evidence of ticket splitting to give her hope.
“Twice as many people are willing to vote Romney-Hochul than are willing to vote Obama-Collins,” he said.
That’s exactly the kind of voter represented by Michael Farr, 49, a senior mechanical designer from Lockport. A member of the Independence Party, Farr said he is voting for Romney for president and Hochul for Congress.
He likes her efforts to save the Niagara Falls Air Force Base and doesn’t like Collins’ “dirty tactics.” He is the kind of voter who seems to be sustaining Hochul.
“Hochul voted against some of Obama’s stuff, and that tells me she stands on her own two feet,” he said.
Another voter contacted in the survey, Darrell Field, 60, of Lakeview, is a Republican and Vietnam veteran who is retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He said he usually does not vote along party lines, but will this year.
“Barack Obama and Kathy Hochul are in the same boat – spend, spend, spend,” he said. “Chris Collins ran a business and can bring us closer to a balanced budget.”
Collins said Saturday the survey results are exactly what he expected. He said he always knew his race against Hochul would be a tough one, crediting his opponent’s abilities as a “strong retail politician.”
But he took notice of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Manhattan fundraiser last week for her and other New York Democrats, and turned around his compliment to again link her with Washington Democrats.
“[Voters] will understand her retail side is less than honest in her support of Obama and Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
The former county executive acknowledged that Hochul remains competitive despite his efforts to link her to Obama, but also said poll results showing him leading in the top economic issues will prove even more important during the remainder of the campaign.
“Over the next four weeks, more of that will crystallize with the voters,” he said.
Hochul, meanwhile, said her visits to diners and farms throughout the eight-county district convince her that the overwhelmingly Republican district remains “open-minded” or she would not have been elected last year.
“My record demonstrates an incredible independence,” she said, noting support she has always received from Republicans and independents.
The poll showed that despite the district’s reflection of the national controversy over the future of Medicare, Collins and Hochul remain tied over who would be trusted more to address the topic – 43 percent to 43 percent. They are also virtually tied (Collins 45 percent; Hochul 44 percent), over who would better handle health care issues.
Hochul also leads on that issue with seniors, 49 percent to 42 percent.
“Senior citizens know that despite what they hear on TV in the Chris Collins campaign, I’ve been fighting for Medicare since Day One,” she said, claiming GOP plans would eventually affect even those enrolled in the current system.
But she acknowledged the lead Collins posts on crucial economic issues.
“That’s an area in which we need to get our message out more forcefully.”
With both candidates preparing for two debates next week on Channel 17 and Channel 4, Greenberg said the televised events will sharpen voter focus even more. They will not garner the huge audiences that focused recently on Obama and Romney, he said, but will generate substantial coverage in newspapers, television and radio.
“But they probably won’t make a big difference unless one of the candidates makes a major gaffe,” he said.
Democratic sources say the poll accurately reflects their internal surveys. Collins sources, meanwhile, took no issue with the Siena poll but said their internal surveys show the Republican leading by 6 percent.
email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com