The proposed FCC crackdown on robocalls could hinder modeling done by campaigns to predict things like turnout or support levels, according to pollsters concerned about the pending changes.
Polling data is already in a rough patch with some recent public surveys and Election Day results showing wild variances. But if the proposed rules go through, pollsters say, it could further muddy the picture campaigns are able to generate of their electorate and raise the price of traditional survey research beyond the reach of down-ballot or under-funded candidates.
“Turnout scores, modeling scores, those rely on automated technology,” said Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of Echelon Insights.
If the rules go through, the cost “would go up in such a way that nobody would do it,” he said. “It’s unclear what the answer would be for a data-driven campaign.”
Since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s blog post went up May 27, pollsters have been bracing for new rules they expect to dramatically increase the cost of survey research by making it more difficult to reach voters.
“The responsibility to protect consumers from robocalls that can be both costly and intrusive does not expire with changes in technology,” Wheeler wrote, before proposing the FCC authorize phone companies to offer robocall-blocking technology and require written consent for cellphones to be autodialed.
That last point could be cause for concern given that pollsters have already been on the receiving end of lawsuits for calling the cell numbers of voters included in the public voter file.
“There is a whole trial lawyer industry that is feeding on the [Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which restricts autodialer calls and robocalls to cells],” said lobbyist Howard Fienberg, who’s leading the polling industry’s FCC pushback. “The lawsuit angle is going to be much more of a pain than anyone realizes.”
Fienberg said his group, the Marketing Research Association, has been meeting with committee staff but he doesn’t expect the industry’s effort will significantly alter the pending rules, which become public June 11. “We’re making our case at the FCC, and we’ll put together written comments, but part of the [challenge] is that we can’t see the final order before it's voted on,” he said.
Another part of the rules proposal penalizes surveyors for calling cell phones that have been reassigned to new users. As a result of all the changes, Fienberg predicted polling would increase in price, in part, because now 58.8 percent of households can only be reached on cell phones. MRA has estimated that studies with manual dialing can be as much as five times as expensive as simple autodialed calls.
Pollsters, he said, “should be preparing for alternatives to the automated dialing. They should already have been scrubbing cellphone numbers and finding providers that will help take care of that. You want to minimize the amount of trouble you can get into.”
Brent Buchanan, whose firm Cygnal uses autodialers in its research, warns that clients are sure to cut down their polling if the price goes up significantly. “If they’re looking at polling five races, for example, they may cut that down to two,” he said. “They’ll be making less informed decisions.”
Online surveys, which may one day equal the accuracy of telephone results, don’t yet have a strong enough methodology, said Buchanan. “It’s very difficult to apply that same methodology to the currently available online collection methods. Not that we won’t get there, there are just challenges in the time being.”
He pointed to a client, a sitting governor, who wanted a poll over a recent weekend to show a state legislator that support for his policy proposal was good politics. Cygnal had a script approved on a Friday and had results from a survey of some 400 voters in the legislator’s district by Sunday night. “What are the odds I could have done that an online poll?” he asked.
Even at the national level its challenging, pollsters say, where in House districts panel sizes aren’t big enough making online panels impractical.
Pollster Stefan Hankin of Lincoln Park Strategies expects the new rules to accelerate a shift to online surveys, although he also thinks improvements need to be made in sampling.
“We’ve seen a stronger move to online research and I think this will just accelerate that,” he said. “We adapt and go forward.”
Hankin and others believe Congress will step in to exempt pollsters from these rules once lawmakers get wind of how they’ll hinder telephone town halls or make a repeat of what happened to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) more likely.
But former Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who was an advocate for the polling industry during his eight terms in Congress, said moods have changed on Capitol Hill and its unlikely lawmakers will ride to the rescue like they did during the implementation of the National Do Not Call Registry.
“This is a heavy lean to the consumer groups who want to stop all calling. That’s why people are really worried,” said Terry, now an attorney with Kelley Drye’s D.C. office.
Still, he said it’s unclear what to expect from the FCC. “The chairman’s rhetoric has been greatly inflammatory. But until we actually see the petition orders we won’t know how and to what degree it will impact these businesses.”