Political polls changing as cell phones proliferate and land lines disappear

Oct 20, 2010

Political polling in the U.S. is undergoing significant changes because of the growing popularity of cell phones and the diminishing number of Americans with traditional land lines, says Brian F. Schaffner, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

He says the shift to cell phones means that traditional public opinion polls based on calling large random samples of the that have been familiar since the 1950s really don’t exist anymore. "Polling is getting more difficult," Schaffner says. "No matter how you do it, you can’t get a truly random sample."

Adjusting polling methods to reflect these new demographic realities requires understanding what those changes are and which groups of people are affected, he says. For example, Schaffner estimates that between 35 and 40 percent of Americans are very difficult or impossible to reach on those traditional land line telephones. He says, "People who can be reached by land lines tend to be older, have families, and are more connected to their communities."

The other key element is the growing number of people, including many young people, who use only cell phones. In a recent study Shaffner conducted with a colleague, Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard, they found, "One in five households relies exclusively on cell phones for telecommunications. That fact has created coverage problems for phone surveys, and the demographics of this population--younger, mobile, less socially connected--may create biases in political surveys limited to random dialing samples."

Schaffner says many polling organizations now adjust for these changes by including cell phones users, but not all. In fact some well-known pollsters, such as Rasmussen and Survey USA, don’t include users and these companies produce many of the statewide polls that political onlookers are watching during this election season. According to Schaffner, "These surveys run the risk of being biased in favor of Republicans because they are more likely to exclude groups, like younger adults, who vote more Democratic."

Schaffner notes that while polls attempt to use statistical techniques to adjust for the fact that they are missing those with only cell phones, these adjustments are become less effective with time, forcing pollsters to rethink their approach to polling. "The increasing numbers of cell-phone-only Americans is making telephone polling much more complicated and costly, as a result pollsters are looking seriously at new approaches to polling like Internet surveys," he says.

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Presidential primary 2008 polls: What went wrong

Mar 30, 2009

University of Michigan survey experts working with the American Association for Public Opinion Research have identified several reasons polls picked the wrong winners in the 2008 Presidential Primary.

Phone home and call likely answered on the cell

May 06, 2009

(AP) -- In a high-tech shift accelerated by the recession, the number of U.S. households opting for only cell phones has for the first time surpassed those that just have traditional landlines. It is the ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

bhiestand
not rated yet Oct 21, 2010
It's good to see this getting more coverage and study.

It reminds me of the failings of early telephone polls... only wealthier people could afford phones, so the results were significantly skewed towards those demographics. If I recall correctly, phone surveys showed the economy wasn't too bad ~1930 and that Herbert Hoover had decent approval ratings.

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...