New study finds battlegound state polling worked until 2012 election

June 15, 2015, American Statistical Association

A statistical analysis of poll performance in battleground states over the last three presidential elections shows polling firms produced estimates that were fairly accurate in 2004 and 2008, but underestimated support for President Obama in 2012, a new article reports.

The article's authors—Ole J. Forsberg and Mark E. Payton, professors in the department of statistics at Oklahoma State University—believe the culprit for bad polling in the 2012 election may have roots in "outdated and possibly flawed sampling methodology" that resulted in state-focused polls overestimating support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

In the article—published on the website of Statistics and Public Policy, an online, open-access journal of the American Statistical Association (ASA)—the authors used a new statistical model they developed that incorporates statewide polling information as well as past and present national polling data to arrive at more accurate estimates of a candidate's level of support in each state.

Forsberg and Payton write in "Analysis of Battleground State Presidential Polling Performances, 2004-2012" the country's cellphone culture may be the culprit for the shortcomings of the 2012 election polling results.

"Increasingly, U.S. citizens, and therefore potential voters, are relying solely on cellphones and not maintaining landlines in their homes," write Forsberg and Payton. "According to Marketing Charts, the percentage of households that solely relied on wireless phones from 2008 to 2011 increased from 17.5% to 34.0%. During the same period, the percentage of households with a landline decreased from 79.1% to 63.6%."

Further, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study conducted in 2011 estimates that 38% of all American adults and almost 40% of all households have cellphone service but no landline. This estimate is up from approximately 8% just five years earlier.

Separately, a 2013 CDC report shows the rate of cellphone-only (CPO) households is inconsistent across demographic groups. For instance, those in the 18-24 age group are more likely to be CPO (54%) than those in the 35-44 (44%), 45-64 (30%) and 65 and over (12%) age groups. Meanwhile, the poor more than the not-poor (55% to 35%), those living in metropolitan areas more than those in non-metropolitan locations (40% to 32%) and people in the Northeast less than all people in other regions combined (27% to 40%) are likely to be CPO.

Forsberg and Payton point out that prior research has determined CPO households tend to lean toward Democratic candidates. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found three of four election polls conducted that year produced estimates showing slightly more support for Republican candidates and less support for Democratic candidates, resulting in differences of four to six points. This finding has implications on the quality of all polling results and will get worse in the future as more U.S. homes become CPO.

Additionally, exit polls conducted during the 2012 presidential election suggest the Democratic leaning of CPO households is increasing. For instance, the 18-29 age group voted 60% for President Obama, while only 44% of those 65 and over did so. Also, the poor were more likely to vote for the president than the rich (60% to 44%). "This evidence of support for President Obama suggests his supporters were less likely to be contacted by polling firms than were Romney supporters," write Forsberg and Payton.

The issue for pollsters is calling landlines is easier and less costly. To protect cellphone users from paying for unsolicited calls, current law requires pollsters to dial cellphone numbers manually (conversely, landlines can be reached via computer-generated dialing), explained the authors.

The duo believes the effect of CPO households on poll estimates has become significant. Accordingly, they recommend sampling methodology be adjusted to reflect the new realities and account for a segment of the CPO voting population that tends to vote for Democratic candidates but currently is not included in the sampled population.

"In recent years, the number of landlines has decreased, while the population has increased. Today's youth are more likely to be without a landline than are the elderly. Thus, landline ownership may no longer be independent of political persuasion. This bias needs to be better used in election estimates," they urged.

"The finding that CPO households tend to be more Democratic and less Republican shows the importance of adjusting poll estimates to reflect this difference," write Forsberg and Payton.

The duo studied state polling because they believe it is the best resource to predict the outcome of a presidential election. They encourage the media and public to focus on polling in battleground states—those states that will determine the winning candidate in the Electoral College—to better understand public preference in .

"During any year, considerable attention is paid to political polls. While many members of the media tend to focus on national polls to determine the pulse of the voting public, of more importance in determining the candidate with the electoral edge is evaluating how the candidates are preferred in so-called 'swing states' or 'battleground states,'" Forsberg and Payton write.

Explore further: Epic fails in 2015 elections: Does polling jeopardize fairness?

More information: Statistics and Public Policy, amstat.tandfonline.com/doi/ful … 1034389#.VX7umu9RGM8

Related Stories

Polls show deep partisan divide over Affordable Care Act

October 29, 2014

A comprehensive analysis of data from 27 public opinion polls conducted by 14 organizations, including a poll in September of those most likely to vote, shows an electorate polarized by political party when it comes to the ...

Presidential primary 2008 polls: What went wrong

March 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.

Recommended for you

What happened before the Big Bang?

March 26, 2019

A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into ...

Probiotic bacteria evolve inside mice's GI tracts

March 26, 2019

Probiotics—which are living bacteria taken to promote digestive health—can evolve once inside the body and have the potential to become less effective and sometimes even harmful, according to a new study from Washington ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

mvymvy
not rated yet Jun 15, 2015
Analysts already say that only the 2016 party winner of 7 states is not a foregone conclusion. So less than a handful of states will continue to dominate and determine the presidential general election.

The indefensible reality is that more than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states in 2012.

Where you live determines how much, if at all, your vote matters.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of battleground states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states that have just been ignored after the conventions.

NationalPopularVote

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.