Owens’ Margin Over Hoffman Narrows — But His Win Does Not Appear In Serious Danger

Could Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate who conceded the NY-23 special election last week, still end up pulling ahead and ejecting the newly sworn-in Democratic Rep. Bill Owens from office? The answer is that it’s mathematically possible, but simply not likely in real terms.

The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Owens’ lead over Hoffman had shrunk from about 5,000 votes, as it was on election night when Hoffman conceded, to only 3,000 votes. With up to 10,000 absentee ballots to be counted, this left the possibility of Hoffman pulling ahead. Hoffman spokesman Rob Ryan admitted to Dave Weigel that the odds of such an upset were not too good: “Even if the margin had been 3,000 votes on election night, we would have conceded. We just might have done it later.”

The most up to date numbers from the Watertown Daily Times show the picture even bleaker for Hoffman than that. With only 5,400 absentees left to count, Owens’ lead is holding steady at 3,176. “Are they going to change the result? I don’t know, I wouldn’t bet the mortgage payment on it,” Rob Ryan just told me. “But since this has been such a bizarre race, who the hell knows?”I asked Owens spokesman John Boughtin whether they were confident in his win. “It really isn’t something that we’re looking closely at,” said Boughtin, seemingly unconcerned. “He’s got a big job ahead of him and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

The issue here is that in any election, initial numbers from precincts can often contain mistakes, due to simple human error by exhausted election workers. As a hypothetical example, a precinct might have 410 votes for a candidate, which could be mistakenly written down as 140 and not proofread until a week later. These errors are distributed at random and thus usually cancel each other out, in terms of the horse race — but in a very close election, they can sometimes make the difference.

The thing to remember, however, is that it remains highly unlikely that Hoffman could have won, as he would need an extraordinary margin among a small pool of absentee ballots. Only about 10,000 absentees were distributed in total, and some of them will not have been returned on time. Some of the returned ballots will contain essentially wasted votes for Republican Dede Scozzafava, who dropped out of the race the weekend before the election and endorsed Owens, shrinking the pool even further. And of course the Democrats usually maintain active absentee ballot operations, so Owens will have a significant number of votes.

Even if Hoffman were to lead Owens among absentees, a question we simply don’t know the answer to, the odds do not speak in favor of any sort of landslide win necessary to give him the race. So Owens can rest assured that in all likelihood, he won this race — just by a slightly narrower margin than we first thought.