October 12, 2015

Do election poll results matter in age of cellphones and the Internet?

Denyse O'LearyRebel Blogger

Polls matter much less than they used to, apparently, according to commentator Jeff Jacoby, who offers some interesting information: 

Jacoby reports:

"Election polling is in near crisis," broods Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. "Our old paradigm has broken down, and we haven't figured out how to replace it." The reason? In a word, cellphones.

For decades, professional opinion polling has relied on the ability to call landline phone numbers generated at random and be fairly confident of reaching an adult at the other end.

But the explosive growth in cellphone use over the past two decades has fatally undermined that confidence. Today, according to federal data, more than 45 percent of American homes only use cellphones; another 15 percent, though owning landlines, get almost all their calls on cellphones.

Thus any pollster who relies on landline phones to survey public opinion bypasses close to 60 percent of US households right off the bat.

As a result, response rates have cratered from 80 percent to 8 percent.

Eight percent? Maybe eight percent of the American public believes that the White House is hiding space aliens.

This skepticism of the value of opinion polls is echoed by a Canadian group, Abacus:

One-third of Canadians no longer have land lines and caller-ID means many others won’t answer unfamiliar calls on their cellphones or land lines. That means it takes longer to do a poll, which drives live survey costs higher and making it less likely media organizations will shell out the $10,000-$20,0000 needed to partner with a major polling firm.

“I would imagine in the next couple of years there will not be telephone surveys being done and instead we’re going to be looking for new ways to collect data online,” said Coletto, who has used IVR in the past, but will not do so again. “One of the more recent methodologies would be to randomly pull people off websites.”

Good luck with that.

My sense is that, whatever their partisanship, these people are on to something important:

Today, when we hear that “polls show,” we are probably looking at the claims through the funny mirror at the circus.

As Jacoby puts it:

For better or for worse, polling's heyday is over. Political surveys are ubiquitous, but fewer and fewer of them will be correct. You know that bromide about how the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day? Time to start taking it to heart.

Now more than ever and with so much at stake, we must exercise our own judgement about persons qualified for office.

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commented 2015-10-16 00:19:22 -0400
Churchill had it right about polls – I suspect thy are even more distorted these days because of VoIP and skype comm as well as mobile – a large number of people have unlisted numbers which pollsters can’t access Firewalls and call filters – sucks to be a pollster these days. I suspect they keep calling the same groups who respond to polls. I watched the exit polling done in the last US election and even that was out by over 5 points.
commented 2015-10-13 07:30:10 -0400
Yes, you are right, Dave Bainard! The people responding to the poll are hardly a representative sample. A deeper problem the pollsters probably don’t want to acknowledge is this: The mere fact that polls may predict accurately what happens on election day does not mean they are a useful tool for information-gathering. An astute analyst may make equally correct large-scale predictions just from observing the tide of events.

John Stuart Mill called this the Method of Difference. That is, what difference does it make to our understanding and ability to predict, whether the poll was done or not?
commented 2015-10-12 22:56:03 -0400
Most people I know have discontinued their landlines. Who needs the extra bill? Using landlines alone would be sure to invalidate any poll. Asking a question on a major highway billboard and collecting horn honking responses would probably be just as or more accurate.