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Somebody Poll a Senate Race

Can Democrats hold onto the U.S. Senate? It’s the big question ahead of the November midterm elections. Republicans need to pick up six seats to regain the majority.

The trouble for political analysts, such as myself, is that little data is available at this point in several crucial states. The few polls we do have aren’t the most reliable (reliable meaning conducted with live interviewers by a nonpartisan firm).

Consider the following three states with marquee Senate races:

Alaska: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is trying to show that his 2008 win wasn’t a fluke. The state is notoriously difficult to poll. In 2008 and 2010, surveys called key House and Senate races incorrectly. The last live-interview, nonpartisan poll conducted for this race? I can’t find one.

Arkansas: Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is holding on for dear life against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. At least that’s what we think; the most recent poll taken by a nonpartisan firm was conducted in October. The most recent live-interview poll was by the Democratic-leaning Hickman Analytics, whose only poll in 2012 was off by 11 percentage points.

Colorado: Huzzah! A rare state where a good pollster, Quinnipiac University, conducted numerous surveys. They show Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in trouble. Still, Quinnipiac — good as it is — underestimated the Obama vote in the 2012 presidential race, and we don’t have any other live-interview polls in Colorado to compare with Quinnipiac’s results. Even when many pollsters are active, Colorado is a tricky state. Republican Ken Buck would be senator if the majority of polls were right in 2010.

These aren’t the only key Senate races with scarce or potentially unreliable polling. Georgia and Michigan have their own issues. Electoral predictions rely heavily on polling data, and we need more of that data before we can get a detailed sense of the 2014 landscape.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.