Hurricane Sandy is wreaking havoc on polls by making it more difficult to reach voters in some of the key states that could decide the election.
Gallup will suspend its daily national polling on account of the storm, and many voters in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire could be out of reach of pollsters just days before the election.
Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, said polling outlets can’t get good access to voters two days before or two days after a major weather event, as voters stock up on water ahead of time and clean up their yards in the days that follow.
Problems caused by Sandy add more uncertainty to polls that have already vexed voters and campaign insiders with their seemingly contradictory signals.
Different polls of Ohio released since the weekend have shown a tied race, Republican Mitt Romney with a 2-point advantage and President Obama with a 4-point lead. In Virginia, different surveys found Obama with a 4-point lead and Romney with a 2-point advantage.
While Gallup’s daily tracking poll and other national surveys suggest Romney is building a lead in the popular vote, the battle for the Electoral College appears tight, with different polls showing one candidate or the other clinging to narrow leads in the big battlegrounds of Ohio, Florida and Virginia as well as smaller states such as New Hampshire, Iowa and Colorado.
Nate Silver at the widely read New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight says the polls show a 75 percent chance Obama will win the Electoral College, and only a 25 percent chance for Romney.
The last time there was an Electoral College-popular vote split was in 2000 — which also offers a reminder that polls heading into Election Day can lead to surprising results once voters cast their ballots.
Before the election, polls suggested Republican George W. Bush could win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College to Democrat Al Gore. The opposite ended up happening.
Sandy’s effect on polls will also flow down the ticket. Recent polling had shown Democrat Elizabeth Warren leading Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in their Massachusetts Senate race by 5 percentage points, for example, but a Boston Globe survey released Monday showed the candidates locked in a tie. That might be the last poll either side sees.
Corker said a string of hurricanes that hit Florida in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election produced a number of outlying results because pollsters didn’t have access to parts of the state they otherwise would have polled.
And it’s not just poll watchers who will be in the dark. The campaigns themselves spend big on internal polling to help determine where to allocate resources.
“That's going to make it difficult to decide where candidates are going to travel,” political strategist Doug Thornell told The Hill in an interview.
For a political class and electorate that has obsessed over the polls, the drought couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.
Some polls suggest the race has tightened significantly in recent days, with states that seemed safely in one candidate’s column only a week ago now appearing up for grabs. Obama’s grip on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be slipping, while other polls show Romney losing ground in North Carolina.
Coker, whose firm was responsible for the eye-popping Minneapolis Star Tribune survey last week that showed Romney within 3 points of Obama in Minnesota, says the swing-state polls will catch up to the national polls by Election Day and produce a Romney victory.
“What I’m starting to see, and just what my gut is telling me, is that with the national polls and the state polls, there’s been a slow, steady move to Romney,” he said. “That’s about to reach critical mass where it will spill over from the national polls to the swing-state polls.”
With the race this tight and a dearth of poll data on the horizon, pollsters, the campaigns, the media and voters will find out who was wrong and who was right next Tuesday. In the interim, everything is speculation made a little fuzzier by the weather.