This election season already had many of the ingredients of a pollster’s nightmare. Millions of Americans are abandoning land-line telephones, and thanks to caller ID and obnoxious telemarketing, millions of others refuse to answer those landlines unless they know who the caller is. The increased use of cellphones — many young people use them as text machines or for Internet access, seldom taking calls on their phones — have made it difficult to be confident that you’re getting your demographics right.
Throw in the growing use of early voting and the difficulty of predicting what the 2012 electorate will look like, and you have a real potential for polling mistakes.
And then, of course, there’s Hurricane Sandy. Millions of Americans are without power, hundreds of thousands have evacuated, thousands have seen their homes destroyed or seriously damaged and at last count roughly 30 people have been killed. According to weather forecasters, the storm is far from over as it moves inland.
That kind of devastation and dislocation makes the presidential race and Senate races impossible to poll. Gallup has announced that it has suspended its national tracking poll for that very reason. There are other questions as well: How will the storm affect turnout next week? It will undoubtedly affect some groups and some regions more than others, but which ones? And will government’s response to the storm, either effective or ineffective, alter how people vote?
At this point in the race, political professionals are usually trying to eliminate as many variables as possible. They want no surprises, and they want data they can rely upon. This time, they’ll have none of those things. Campaigns, pundits, pollsters and voters will be going into next week’s election with a degree of uncertainty that we haven’t seen in decades, particularly in the regions most affected by the storm.
And an already considerable potential for major election-night surprises becomes even more significant.
– Jay Bookman