Poll Problems

If they're going to be used for debates, they might as well be good.

Pew-Research-WPPerhaps you think polling has always been an unreliable oracle for the shape of things to come. Perhaps this way of thinking is new to you, brought on by some recent, high-visibility polling flubs. Writing for the Pew Fact Tank blog, Drew DeSilver lays out a few: the predicted dead heat for the U.K. elections that turned into a resounding Tory victory, for one, and the 2014 midterms that were more favorable to Dems than was actually the case.

To explain what has gone wrong with the state of polling, DeSilver points to the assertion by Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University professor and former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, that the decline in accuracy is owed to an increase of cell phone usage and decrease in the amount of people willing to answer surveys.

In an interview with Scott Keeter, the Pew Research Center’s director of survey research, Keeter and DeSilver look at those dual issues to figure out their impact on survey accuracy.

This would be just be a fun thought exercise in survey wonkdom if not for the outsized role polls will have on the shape of the Republican primaries, where they will soon be used to determine who will make the primetime debate cut for Fox and other networks.

If polls in general are unreliable, early national polls are exceedingly so. And yet, like so many flawed standardized tests, this is the marker chosen to measure one person against another.

If we must deal with polls, they can at the very least be better designed, if they account for the new (if you count cell phones as new) state of things. We’ve highlighted a few of Keeter’s points we find noteworthy:

  • Despite the fact that contacting cell phone users is more labor intensive than landline users, response rates are even.
  • Even, but low–9 percent low. Keeter explains why:

    People are harder to contact for a survey now than in the past. That’s a consequence of busier lives and greater mobility, but also technology that makes it easier for people to ignore phone calls coming from unknown telephone numbers. The rising rate of outright refusals is likely driven by growing concerns about privacy and confidentiality, as well as perceptions that surveys are burdensome.

  • Low response rates aren’t a huge problem if the poll manages to balance telephone and landline responses and weigh participant responses in a way that is representative of actual U.S. demographics.
  • Figuring out likely voters with a high level of accuracy–that is the real achilles heel for poll designers.

We want to know what you think, FBDC reader-wonks. Use the commment box below to give us your opinions in a poll-related open thread.