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: Personalized advertising attracts more attention, makes the contents of ads easier to remember

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

The psychology of gift-giving and receiving

8 hours ago

Gift exchanges can reveal how people think about others, what they value and enjoy, and how they build and maintain relationships. Researchers are exploring various aspects of gift-giving and receiving, such as how givers ...

Strong neighborhood ties can help reduce gun violence

10 hours ago

The bonds that tie a neighborhood together can help shield community members from gun violence, according to new findings by Yale School of Medicine researchers in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical ...

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.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.