WASHINGTON -- With Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) embroiled in controversy over remarks that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, political handicappers are reassessing the viability of his challenge to Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Although polls conducted in recent months show Akin leading McCaskill, political observers are speculating that Akin's support will drop, with the disagreement centering mostly on how much the numbers will change.

McCaskill won the Missouri Senate seat in 2006 by defeating incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R) by a narrow, two percentage-point margin (49.6 to 47.3 percent). Over the past year, however, McCaskill has trailed Republican nominee Todd Akin in 8 of 9 public polls conducted since February -- most before he had secured the nomination -- with the one exception being a poll conducted by a Democratic super PAC.

Prominent political handicappers, who look beyond polling to other aspects of the campaign, have until now rated this a close race that may tip to Akin. Prior to Sunday's comments by Akin, for example, the Rothenberg Political Report considered the race a toss-up that "tilts Republican" and called McCaskill "the Senate's most endangered incumbent." Similarly, the Cook Political Report previously considered the race a toss-up, but also called McCaskill "the most vulnerable" of Democratic incumbents seeking reelection this year.

On Sunday night the internet lit up with speculation about how much the controversy would hurt Akin. The National Journal's Josh Kraushaar wrote that while Akin's blunder will "cost [him] dearly with female voters," he still considers the race a "toss-up." The New York Times' Nate Silver went further, concluding that the remarks could produce a swing against Akin of more than 10 percentage points.

Some pollsters will rush this week to assess the impact of Akin's remarks, but considerable variation in results from their most recent surveys offer an important reminder of the need for caution in comparing polls done by different organizations.

For example, the two polls conducted just after Missouri's August 7 primary show very different results. A poll sponsored by local television stations and conducted by SurveyUSA showed Akin leading by 11 points (51 to 40 percent). Yet a one-night automated survey conducted by a local Democratic pollster gave Akin a one point edge (48 to 47 percent).

Results among subgroups should be read even more cautiously. Consider the enormous differences in the three most recent media polls conducted just before and after the August primary. These show Akin's lead over McCaskill among men varying between 9 and 23 percentage points. Among women, the polls ranged from a 14-point Akin lead (SurveyUSA) to a 12-point deficit (Rasmussen Reports).

2012-08-20-Blumenthal-MOPollsGender.png

Put another way, these polls yielded varying gender gaps, ranging from McCaskill running 35 points better among women than men on the Rasmussen poll to McCaskill running five points worse among women than men on the SurveyUSA poll.

In this case, events may move faster than the pollsters. Some Republicans are calling for Akin to exit the race, and the deadline for withdrawal is Tuesday afternoon. Most pollsters call for several days in order to contact hard-to-reach respondents, and many believe that tracking polls conducted in the immediate wake of a major development can produce fleeting "bumps" in opinion that quickly recede.

So Akin will likely need to decide whether to withdraw or continue before pollsters can produce a stable, reliable read on public reaction to his comments.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.)

    "Well, I thought his comments were a little bit outrageous," she <a href="http://www.kjzz.org/content/1208/gov-brewer-akin-comments-little-bit-outrageous-doesnt-call-candidate-drop-out-race" target="_hplink">told KJZZ's Mark Brodie</a>. "I'm not in a position to [decide] whether it's right for the party to pull funding, I mean, those people there raise the money, they get to spend it however they wish."

  • Mitt Romney

    "As I said yesterday, Todd Akin's comments were offensive and wrong and he should very seriously consider what course would be in the best interest of our country," said Romney in a statement. "Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race." Earlier, from an <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/314452/romney-akins-inexcusable-comment-robert-costa" target="_hplink">interview with the National Review</a>: <blockquote>"Congressman's Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong," Romney said. "Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive."</blockquote>

  • Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.)

    "He should be ashamed of himself to be talking about it in that way," Christie said. "It's stunning to me that somebody who's offering themselves for high office like that would have those kind of thoughts and use that kind of language."

  • Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.)

    From <a href="http://mountpleasant.patch.com/articles/gov-scott-walker-says-missouri-senate-candidate-todd-akin-should-get-out" target="_hplink">Patch</a>: <blockquote>Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday that Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin should drop out of the race after Akin made controversial comments about rape and pregnancy. "Yes, he should step down. Those comments were ignorant at best and outrageous," Walker said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Sturtevant.</blockquote>

  • Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.)

    "He's got to seriously decide what's in the best interest of the party, what's in the best interest of the state of Missouri, and frankly, at this point, given that flat wrong statement, whether he can win," McDonnell <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/bob-mcdonnell-todd-akin_n_1818906.html?1345568504" target="_hplink">told The Huffington Post</a>. "I think there was a belief a month ago, when it was just he and [incumbent Sen. Claire] McCaskill head to head after he got the nomination, that it would be a hard-fought competitive race, with Romney at the top of the ticket and up double digits, that this would be a race that would be winnable for the Republicans," McDonnell said. "To say things that seemed to be so flat wrong and out of touch with both science and the people, I think it makes it very difficult at this point for him to win."

  • NRSC Chair Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)

    "It is beyond comprehension that someone can be so ignorant about the emotional and physical trauma brought on by rape ... The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and the impact on its victims are offensive."

  • Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan Campaign

    "Gov. Romney and Congressman (Paul) Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. "Congressman's Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong," <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/314452/romney-akins-inexcusable-comment-robert-costa" target="_hplink">Romney said</a>. "Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive."

  • Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

    "What he said is just flat wrong in addition to being wildly offensive to any victim of sexual abuse. Although Representative Akin has apologized, I believe he should take time with his family to consider whether this statement will prevent him from effectively representing our party in this critical election," said McConnell, according to the <a href="http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-mcconnell-suggests-todd-akin-consider-his-options-20120820,0,5243455.story" target="_hplink"><em>Los Angeles Times</em></a>.

  • Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

  • Elizabeth Warren

  • Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.)

    "As a husband and father of two young women, I found <a href="http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/scott-brown-calls-for-todd-akin-to-drop" target="_hplink">Todd Akin's comments</a> about women and rape outrageous, inappropriate and wrong. There is no place in our public discourse for this type of offensive thinking. Not only should he apologize, but I believe Rep. Akin's statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for US Senate in Missouri."

  • Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)

    "Whether he has mispoken or whether he has a position that we would have trouble agreeing on, I don't know that. I do know him and I do know his family, and I'm impressed with what they've accomplished. So that's the best I can do with what little bit I know," <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDsQkjnQx5Y&feature=youtu.be" target="_hplink">said King</a>. And later: "I just haven't heard of that being a circumstance that's been brought to me in any personal way," he <a href="http://www.kmeg14.com/story/19324372/rep-steve-king-on-the-campaign-trail" target="_hplink">told KMEG</a>. "I'd be open to hearing discussion about that subject matter."

  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.)

  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

    "I have to agree with those, including Republicans, who have said he should give up his race for Senate," said Van Hollen on <a href="http://video.msnbc.msn.com/newsnation/48728017/#48728017" target="_hplink">NewsNation with Tamron Hall</a>.

  • Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.)

    "Like Joe Biden's comments last week, I find Todd Akin's comments made Sunday to be just as outrageous and offensive. Such insulting and offensive remarks from Joe Biden and Todd Akin have no place in our political discourse," said Mack in a <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/08/connie-mack-cosponsor-of-forcible-rape-bill-links-akins-legitimate-rape-with-bidens-chains-.html" target="_hplink">press release</a>.

  • Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)

  • Cindy McCain

  • Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.)

    Talent, who once held the Senate seat Akin is running for, declined to endorse Akin on Monday. "It's a decision he has to make," Talent said when asked whether Akin should step aside, according to the <a href="http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-todd-akin-stay-in-senate-race-20120820,0,2849040.story" target="_hplink"><em>Los Angeles Times</em></a>. "I can't agree with anything [Akin] said," Talent later clarified.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)

    "Now, Akin's choice of words isn't the real issue here. The <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/burns-haberman/2012/08/dnc-email-ties-romney-to-todd-akin-132522.html" target="_hplink">real issue</a> is a Republican party -- led by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan -- whose policies on women and their health are dangerously wrong. I'm outraged at the Republicans trying to take women back to the dark ages -- if you agree, join me in taking a stand for women. Really, it's deeply concerning that Republicans continue to support legislation that is, quite literally, dangerous for women. Mitt Romney famously says he would "get rid of" federal funding for Planned Parenthood if he had the chance. His running mate, Paul Ryan, was one of more than 200 Republican cosponsors of a piece of legislation that would have narrowed the definition of rape. Can you imagine -- the same Republican House that refuses to pass a jobs bill jumped at the opportunity to make life harder for victims of rape? And what do Romney and Ryan think of Akin's latest statement? They've been trying to distance themselves from it -- but Congressman Ryan has already partnered with Akin on a whole host of issues that restrict women's ability to make their own health care decisions."

  • Sarah Steelman, Akin's Former Primary Opponent

  • Meghan McCain

  • Terry O'Neill, President Of The National Organization For Women

    "That kind of rhetoric re-traumatizes sexual assault victims. ... That kind of talk, I believe, is intended to shame women," she told the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/20/todd-akin-rape-comments_n_1810362.html?1345468189" target="_hplink">Associated Press radio</a>, characterizing the remarks as "flat-out astonishing."

  • Mike Murphy, GOP Consultant

  • Michelle Malkin, Conservative Columnist

  • Joe Scarborough, Host Of MSNBC's "Morning Joe"

    "There is a rule," <a href="http://www.mediaite.com/tv/scarborough-reacts-to-akins-rape-remark-conservatives-neglecting-to-choose-the-most-electable-candidate/" target="_hplink">he [Scarborough] continued</a>, "that we conservatives have followed for a long time, and it's the 'Bill Buckley Rule.' You elect the most electable conservative. The person who is the most conservative and who is the most electable is the one you put on the ticket. That's the part of the equation that we're losing over the last three years. And it's making Harry Reid the majority leader."

  • Bryan Fischer, Conservative Radio Host

  • Tom Perriello, President Of Center For American Progress Action Fund

  • Petition By The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

    <blockquote><a href="http://dccc.org/pages/denounce-todd-akin?source=2012.08.20_kw_all" target="_hplink">Sign your name to call</a> on Speaker John Boehner to remove Rep. Todd Akin from the House Science and Technology Committee. Republican Congressman Todd Akin told a Missouri news station: "First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare... If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Someone who believes nonsense like this has no part overseeing science policy. Tell Speaker Boehner to immediately remove Rep. Akin from the House Science and Technology Committee.</blockquote>

  • Susan B. Anthony List

    <blockquote>"Congressman Akin, a longtime pro-life leader, has said he had misspoken, and no one is arguing that rape is anything but a despicable, horrible crime. "Abortion supporters like Sen. Claire McCaskill are trying to use this issue as a smokescreen to hide from their radical, pro-abortion records that are out of step with the majority of Missourians and the American people. On the issues of taxpayer funding of elective abortion in Obamacare, protection of unborn girls being targeted in the womb solely because of their gender, and whether children capable of feeling pain in the womb should be protected, President Obama and Senator McCaskill have been on the wrong side, showing that they favor abortion on-demand, for any reason, up to the moment of birth, subsidized by the taxpayers. "If President Obama and Senator McCaskill care to focus on extreme positions, it is time for self reflection. It is time to answer the question why this president has recently rejected bans on gender selection and late term abortions. "Todd Akin, on the other hand, has a record of voting to protect human life. His opponent does not. Congressman Akin has been an excellent partner in the fight for the unborn."</blockquote>

  • Tea Party Express

    <a href="http://www.teapartyexpress.org/5205/tea-party-express-urges-rep-akin-to-step-down" target="_hplink">Tea Party Express</a>, the nation's largest tea party political action committee, is urging Congressman Todd Akin to resign his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer said, "Congressman Akin's comments this weekend are not just unfortunate and inappropriate, but they are distracting from our main goal of defeating Claire McCaskill and taking the Senate gavel out of the hands of Harry Reid. At a time when our national debt is approaching $16 trillion, job growth is stagnate, and the Senate has failed to pass a budget in over 3 years, we need a candidate that is ready to help lead the charge for conservative solutions. "One of the lessons we learned in 2010 is that we need candidates who are not only conservative, but are capable of putting together a strong campaign against liberal opponents. Akin's frequent 'Bidenisms' are distracting from the important issues at hand. "It is critical that we defeat Senator Claire McCaskill in November, but it will be too difficult to achieve that with Todd Akin as the conservative alternative. He should step down and give conservatives a chance at taking back the Senate in November," Kremer concluded.