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Primaries can go either way depending on turnout, complex factors

Lilyan Maitan stands in a voting booth during

Lilyan Maitan stands in a voting booth during the Republican primary election at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Philadelphia on April 24, 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Beware of political consultants bearing primary polls.

"If you are 10 points behind 10 days out from the general election, you can usually start writing your concession speech," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works primarily for Republicans. But in a primary, "you still have a chance if you do a better job of getting your supporters out," he said.

If you don't believe it, ask House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who last week lost a Republican primary in his Virginia district. The week before, respected pollster John McLaughlin had Cantor up by 34 points over his relatively unknown opponent Dave Brat, who ended up winning by 11 points. In published reports, McLaughlin later blamed an influx of Democrats, allowed to vote in the primary in Virginia, looking to hurt Cantor by supporting tea party-backed Brat in the GOP primary -- a factor that never was polled.

In New York, where the law limits primary voting to party members, Democrat Mario Cuomo won a 1982 gubernatorial primary where he was at one point more than 30 points down, in a huge upset of popular New York City Mayor Edward Koch.

Koch, however, had antagonized upstaters by portraying them as wearing "gingham." More important, Cuomo had powerful unions including the state Civil Service Employees Association and Communications Workers of America, that ran phone banks identifying likely voters and turned them out in force.

What makes primaries dicey for pollsters is that voters who show up do not necessarily reflect the overall makeup of general election voters. Pollsters also have to make assumptions about turnout based on issues such as gender and ethnicity. And because primary turnout often is small -- as low as 5 percent to 15 percent -- even small blocs of voters -- tea party supporters, unions or community groups fired up over a local issue -- can swing an election.

In Suffolk, Regina Seltzer, 71, knocked off Republican-turned-Democrat Rep. Michael Forbes in a 2000 Democratic primary because its voters were upset the GOP defector had the party's line. Some Democrats said Republicans spent money behind the scenes to help the underfinanced Seltzer, who later lost the general election.

In 1994 in Nassau, Republican Dan Frisa upended Rep. David Levy in a 56-vote squeaker with the help of gun activists, who were upset with Levy's vote to ban assault rifles. "In a primary, there are issues that can fly below the radar [of pollsters] that you never pick up," said one high-level Nassau Republican. "But if it moves 2,000 votes, you're done."

The biggest factor can be the ground game -- who is better pulling out their voters or depressing the other side's numbers. Political parties normally have an edge with two committee members per election district, but energized activists can offset that advantage.

Turnout could be key for the June 24 congressional primary in the 1st District in Suffolk, where George Demos has heavily outspent two-term state Sen. Lee Zeldin. Turnout also could be crucial in the Democratic Primary in the 4th Congressional District in Nassau, where county Legis. Kevan Abrahams is challenging better-financed District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

Sometimes the political advice -- not poll numbers -- is askew.

Former Suffolk County Executive John V.N. Klein said that in the 1979 GOP primary, pollster Arthur Finkelstein told him to accept responsibility for the controversial and much-delayed Southwest Sewer District project.

But Klein made the statement before the deadline for filing primary petitions. GOP Islip Supervisor Peter F. Cohalan later won the primary. "It was absolutely the right thing to do," said Klein, now 83, who lives in Virginia. "But it was absolutely the wrong time to do it."

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