Growing troubles in surveying Americans

International difficulties in polling are also present in the United States with fewer responses to telephone queries:

With sample sizes often small, fluctuations in polling numbers can be caused by less than a handful of people. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal national survey of the Republican race out this week, for instance, represents the preferences of only 230 likely GOP voters. Analysis of certain subgroups, like evangelicals, could be shaped by the response of a single voter.Shifting demographics are also playing a role. In the U.S., non-whites, who have historically voted at a lower rate than whites, are likely to comprise a majority of the population by mid-century. As their share of the electorate grows, so might their tendency to vote. No one knows by how much, making turnout estimates hard…

To save money, more polling is done using robocalls, Internet-based surveys, and other non-standard methods. Such alternatives may prove useful but they come with real risks. Robocalls, for example, are forbidden by law from dialing mobile phones. Online polling may oversample young people or Democratic Party voters. While such methods don’t necessarily produce inaccurate results, Franklin and others note, their newness makes it harder to predict reliability…

As response rates have declined, the need to rely on risky mathematical maneuvers has increased. To compensate for under-represented groups, like younger voters, some pollsters adjust their results to better reflect the population — or their assessment of who will vote. Different firms have different models that factor in things like voter age, education, income, and historical election data to make up for the all the voters they couldn’t query.

The telephone provided new means of communication in society but also helped make national mass surveys possible once a majority of Americans had them. Yet, even with cell phone adoption increasing to over 90% in 2013 and cell phones spreading as fast as any technology (comparable to the television in the early 1950s), the era of the telephone as an instrument for survey data may be coming to an end.

Three other thoughts:

  1. Another issue at this point of the election cycle: there are so many candidates involved that it is difficult to get good data on all of them.
  2. If the costs of telephone surveys keep going up, might we see more door-to-door surveys? Given the increase in contractor/part-time work, couldn’t polling organizations get good idea from all over the country?
  3. If polls aren’t quite as accurate as they might have bee in the past, does this mean election outcomes will be more exciting for the public? If so, would voter turnout increase?

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