Posted by Brad @ 1:29 pm on March 27th 2009

NY-20: The Inevitable Scott Murphy Lead

I was thinking (and writing) last week that Jim Tedisco has fallen into the trap, only partially through any real fault of his own, of the Challenger Surge.

The Challenger Surge is what I lazily call those races where, for whatever reason, a challenger that by any rights would have no reason to surge, does so, and where that surge feeds mostly on itself. That’s not the same as a challenger gaining, or winning. Plenty of them do that. They either start with big numbers and keep them, or start with respectable numbers and build, little by little, until they’re ahead.

No, what I’m referring to are those candidates who maybe aren’t even exceptional candidates, who start in the single digits in a race, and just kind of hang around for a good long while, until some tipping point comes along and they can 10-15 points. Sometimes, that’s all that happens, but sometimes, a perfect storm happens where that national election-watchers all converge on the race, the opponent is flustered and so flails a little bit, and the story becomes “OMG, this guy is in trouble!” The surge part is, beyond a certain point, it becomes self-perpetuating; everything you, as the guy trying to beat back the surge, do just feeds into the narrative. If you don’t change anything, you’re entrenching and tone deaf. If you change anything, you’re rearranging deck chairs or trying to look like you know what time it is. If you change everything, you’re panicked and “embattled”. Whatever the case, you just can’t really win. I’m reminded of, say, Joe Lieberman against Ned Lamont, or George Allen against Jim Webb, or Elizabeth Dole against Kay Hagan. Sometimes those kinds of challenges fall just short, often they don’t. Whatever the case, it becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral where you fall into a reactive game that you just can’t win.

So it is with Jim Tedisco and Scott Murphy in New York’s marquee off-season congressional race. Today’s Siena Poll (PDF) shows Murphy with his first lead of the cycle—4 days before election day.

Murphy 47 (+6 vs. last poll, March 12)
Tedisco 43 (-2)

The Seina poll before that, February 26, Tesdisco was up 12. So he’s shaved off 16 points in a month (in other polls, that’s closer to 25). The poll before February 26th—I don’t think there was one, because this wasn’t a race to watch.

What to do? Lately, Tedisco has been trying to conflate Murphy with a rubber stamp supporter of Barack Obama. As Adam has pointed out in emails, this strategy is really only recommendable when the guy you’re trying to peg your opponent to is unpopular at the time. Murphy, for his part, seems just fine with the Obama-Murphy conflation, and the President, it’s rumored, might do some heavy lifting personally in this race over the weekend (he has already helped connect with donors, recorded some ads with Murphy, and some other behind-the-scenes things). What’s more, Tedisco’s “I’m my own man and he’s not!” schtick might work better if his campaign weren’t very transparently being run by the Republican National Committee (in fairness, Murphy’s is even more so, but he’s not running on a platform as a rouge independent-minded sort of candidate).

The election is Tuesday. My guess is, Tedisco can’t beat this one back. Murphy’s got the Big Mo’ now, and the story has already become how Jim Tedisco managed to lose this race. Once that’s the headline, it’s hard to write the rest of the story yourself.

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