Recently, I received a call from Gallup on our landline home phone, seeking to speak with my wife, presumably for a political poll. Because she was not at home at the time, Gallup’s representative told me he would call back later. To our knowledge that follow-up call never came. Gallup’s representative never asked me for my wife’s cell phone number, e-mail address, or any way to reach her beyond calling our home phone number again. Why not?
Apparently, some political polling efforts fail to recognize the variety of ways in which Americans communicate today. On his election season must-read blog FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver wrote a post last month entitled “Obama’s Lead Looks Stronger in Polls That Include Cellphones.” Specifically, Mr. Silver observed that polls that use live interviewers and include cell phones show stronger results for President Obama than polls that use automated dialing methods or exclude cellphones. According to Mr. Silver, roughly one-third of American households are excluded by polls that call landlines only.
Failing to reach out to voters on their cell phones is a failure to connect with the way people use technology to participate in our democracy. A Pew study released several days ago points out that 88% of registered voters own a cell phone of some kind. Further, Pew found that registered voters who identify as Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to own a cell phone, own a smartphone, and to use text messaging or apps. Twenty-seven percent of registered voters have used their phone during this election cycle to keep up with the election or political issues.
The failure to include cell phones in political polling not only dims participation, but makes analyzing the meaning of a poll more difficult for members of the public. Mr. Silver can keep track of which polls likely include cellphones and which do not, but the average voter cannot do so easily. While Mr. Silver can develop a formula for weighting the value of polls that do not include cellphones in his election forecast, again, the public cannot do the same.
So, why would a political poll not include cell phones? If the purpose is not to skew the results, what’s the reason? Shouldn’t political pollsters be thinking about expanding their methodologies?
The public’s position on topics with less significance to the future of the United States than the coming Presidential election is polled using the Internet and wireless devices. For example, in a recent NY Times article, Arthur A. Stone explained, “Mondays Aren’t As Blue as We Think.” He helped reach his conclusions regarding people’s misperception of Mondays by analyzing a Gallop survey based on 1,000 live interviews a day on cell phones and land lines of people in every state, including querying Spanish speakers in Spanish. Beyond this serious academic study, visiting the web page for The Voice shows that there are seven ways to vote for artists: toll-free phone calls; on-line via NBC.com; the NBC Live app; the NBC app; Facebook; text messaging (Sprint customers only); and through certain iTunes purchases.
With fewer than three weeks until election day, where is the innovation or forward thinking in political polling? It’s past time for political pollsters to survey the entire electorate or immediately explain the practical, technical and financial limitations on expanding political polling beyond landline phones.