Pity the Pollsters: Cellphones Complicate Fraught Process

Who do you call when 53 percent have 'cut the cord?'

In recent years, pollsters have wrestled with how to deal with the growing number of cellphone users. The problem is how to gather accurate polling data now that a majority (53 percent) of U.S. phone users have cut the cord to traditional landlines and depend solely on cellphones. Unlike landline numbers, cellphone numbers can’t readily be accessed through phone books and other listings used by pollsters.

There are some alternative methods available. The Pew Research Center announced last year that 75 percent of its polling contacts were from a list of cellphone users. However, the added costs and complications can be significant.

“With polling, the bottom line is, the more you’re relying on landlines, the older the population of your respondents will be,” said Ed Sarpolus, director of Lansing-based Target-Insyght, Strategic Consulting and Research. “In Michigan, we have a generally older overall population. You can still do a lot of accurate polling just calling landlines. If you’re polling on primary elections, in particular, just calling landlines can be very accurate because it’s the older voters who vote in primaries. It really all depends on what it is that you want to poll. If you want to reach people on their cell phones, it will cost more.”

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“Can you get access to cellphone numbers? Sure you can,” Sarpolus continued. “I can get 4 million numbers with all the information needed, addresses and so on, if I want to spend the money. And some of the cell phone numbers you’d get will be the same numbers those people had for their landlines — they just switch the number over to their cell phones. However, you get a lower response rate from cell phone users, a lot of them switched to cell phones, in part, because they didn’t want to get those kinds of calls.”

Steve Mitchell, of East Lansing-based Mitchell Research and Communications, said the issue of calling cellphones for polling really comes down to what the client wants to have polled and what they’re willing to pay.

“When we do operator-assisted polls we could call a quarter, one-third, 50 percent, or even some higher percentage of cellphones, depending on what our client is willing to pay,” Mitchell said. “Each call to a cellphone costs twice as much as just accessing a landline. Automated polling only accesses landlines. When you only access landlines you (the pollster) might need to do more adjusting, based on the assumption that you’re reaching a high percentage of older voters.”

“Quite frankly, primary election polling is much easier to do than general election polling because primary voters are older and calling landline users can get good results,” Mitchell added. “But again, it’s really about what the client wants and what they’re willing to pay.”

Mark Grebner, president of East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting, echoed what the other pollsters said about the topic and purpose of a poll dictating the degree to which it is necessary to contact cellphone users. He also said there are issues involving polls and cellphones that the average person probably wouldn’t consider, and summed the challenges as follows:

"Someone who lives in a particular district of Michigan you might be polling could have a cellphone number from Chicago. They could be getting calls from someone doing polls in Illinois. And, of course, someone a pollster calls who has a cellphone number that would indicate they live in the Michigan district might actually live in Chicago. Cellphones haven’t made things easier for the people who want to do polls."

"If you’re talking about a primary election — let’s say for instance the Michigan presidential primary — in which there will be about 2 million voters, you’ll do all right, even with all or mostly landline calls."

"The average person responding to poll questions on a landline phone is 65 years old or older, and it could sometimes even be 70 years old. But that can still work for primary election polling. However, when it comes to the general election, when there will be 5 million voters, you’ve got a problem. How do you poll those additional 3 million voters who aren’t regular voters in other types of elections?"

“In that situation you better have some way of accounting for those people. But contacting their cell phones gets expensive; for one thing, many cell phone users don’t like responding to poll questions, so you’d have to make a lot of calls. Actually, even the number of people with landline phones who are willing to respond to poll questions is decreasing. Response rates are down across the board, which is making it increasingly difficult to do a poll.”


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