Like contestants on Family Feud, political reporters and newbie operatives have no trouble shouting out the top reasons why polling is dead. To these contestants, they’re myriad: the internet, cellphone habits, the decline of the evening family meal, I could go on.
Now, it doesn’t help that there’s been some big polling misses in recent times. But before you relegate pollsters to the land of horse-drawn carriages, rotary telephones and printed newspapers, let’s take a thorough assessment of the current state of polling research, starting with some of the false assumptions being made.
Fallacy 1: Pollsters can’t, or don’t call cellphones because it’s too expensive.
Calling cellphones is more expensive than calling landlines because regulations require us to dial each mobile phone individually rather than using a computerized dialer like we do for calling landlines. But the dramatically greater efficiency we gain by reaching voters at all times of day and night – at work, in their cars, while walking the dog – more than makes up for this cost.
Fallacy 2: No one answers their phones anymore.
We all have blind spots in our perspective and worldview. From wealth and education to community engagement and political awareness, each of us lives in a bubble of our own creation. This isn’t an indictment of any individual or group of people, but rather a recognition that there are real differences between the political class and the broader public you’re trying to influence.
Even though you might not answer your phone for calls you don’t recognize, many Americans of all ages still do. And we have meaningful conversations about elections and public policy with them every day.
Fallacy 3: Pollsters are out of touch with how people communicate.
Sure, our industry is changing, which has the media chasing a story about researchers failing to keep up. But to survive, pollsters are constantly updating their practices to better match how people communicate. For more than a decade, in fact, many pollsters have conducted at least part of their research using methods other than the phone call. Most often, this adaptation has involved contacting voters via email or text.
Fallacy 5: Voters aren’t telling pollsters the truth.
Most people would be shocked at just how honest people are when discussing their views, even on controversial issues like immigration, racism and sexual orientation. But we have additional safeguards. One advantage of multi-mode research is that we sometimes uncover differences among respondents by mode.
If voters tell live interviewers one thing on a call and answer the online portion of a survey saying something different, which is rare, we flag the data. We then get to work on discovering why the difference exists. This is done through deep statistical analysis and also by conducting next-level, individualized qualitative research.
A recent gathering of survey researchers had some observers heralding the “impending death of the telephone poll.” Consider this: the decline of printed newspapers hasn’t brought the end of news. DVRs didn’t eliminate commercials.
Methods evolve as the adoption of technology grows. If anything, as our attention has been dispersed across more mediums, opinion research has become more important. Campaigns need to identify which issue resonates with each segment of voters and then develop a persuasive appeal for each group on their core concern.
In 2020, pollsters will collect public opinion through phone apps, focus groups, smart home speakers, social media platforms and text messages. But most of our research, for now, will still be done the old fashion way: by phone call.
Adam Probolsky is president of Probolsky Research.