A Spitzer lead that doesn’t look so bad for Scott Stringer

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At noon today, two polls were released that showed the race between Eliot Spitzer and Scott Stringer in very different places. Spitzer was "ahead" of Stringer and "neck and neck" and there were "mixed messages."

In Quinnipiac University's poll, Spitzer led Stringer 49 percent to 45 percent among likely Democratic voters, within the poll's 4.4-percent margin of error. 

In Marist's poll, done in collaboration with NBC 4 New York and the Wall Street Journal, Spitzer led Stringer 49 percent to 32 percent among likely Democratic voters.

Journal reporter Michael Saul wrote on Twitter that the numbers were good for Spitzer, and Spitzer's campaign released a statement saying they were "gratified that voters continue to see and respond to Eliot as an independent voice who will protect their money." 

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But Lee Miringoff, the director of polling at Marist College, which gave Spitzer the larger lead, said the two polls aren't really so different, and that for Spitzer, they might not be worth celebrating. 

Miringoff said the key finding in the polls is not the spread between Spitzer and Stringer, but rather, Spitzer's distance from the 50-percent mark which he would need to win the head-to-head primary.

"If it's 46 percent, it's one thing," he told me. "If it's 53 percent, that's another."

In a race like this, Miringoff said voters "are going to find the other guy eventually," and the challenge for the better-known candidate heading into the primary is that "he has to get over 50 at some point."

If the known candidate is under 50 percent, it's good news for the challenger, since it's generally expected that people who are undecided about a known candidate are likely to break for the challenger.

In Spitzer's case, you have to "think of him as an incumbent," for polling analysis purposes, according to Miringoff.

"It's a bit like Thompson's numbers against Bloomberg four years ago," Miringoff told me. In that race, Thompson appeared to trail Bloomberg by a wide margin in most polls, but lost only narrowly on Election Day.