What if the polls are really wrong?

Byline: | Category: 2012, Culture | Posted at: Friday, 2 November 2012

Without getting actual location data from telephone companies or sampling cellphones nationwide, pollsters are forced to ignore people who move into a given state with an out-of-state cell number. Consider the manifestly unrepresentative sample that resides in my cellphone. Of the roughly 100 cellphone numbers I have saved, 49% are owned by people living (and presumably voting) in states that do not match their cellphone’s area code.

Because area codes didn’t cross state baoundaries, back in the old days of reliable landline polling, that made predicting state races relatively simple.  But when it came to predicting House races, the patchwork of area codes made for complications that could skew a poll’s result. 

We may have a similar phenomenon at the state level today.  The above quotation comes from Dan Hopkins when he wondered a couple weeks ago about the geographic reliability of cell phone numbers since area codes effectively no longer stop at state lines.  Undoubtedly this situation exists.  However, it only effects polling if the population of out of state cell phone households users is politically different from the population of geographically consistent cell phone households.  Not knowing who they are or how to contact them, we simply don’t know.

Ten years ago, even a luddite like me had a Tennessee area code but lived in Virginia.  As more households go wireless and as labor portability continues to spread, this polling problem is likely to increase from year to year. 

I wonder if some day, in order to get a representative sample, we’ll go back to actual in-person polling?  Or perhaps we’ll go the full Rasmussen and use only internet polls?

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2 Responses to “What if the polls are really wrong?”

  1. Lorenz Gude Says:

    Ah yes, another problem with participation rate – out of area cell phones. But there is also the culture of phones. My son filters his calls through Google voice and a variety of cell and land line numbers. Bottom like he controls his phone presence like a paranoid CIA agent. There are whole different generations of phone behaviors out there in the wild. Me I’m from the one land line that you run to answer era. At some point the social science and statistical models that under gird our polling systems have to become obsolete. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this years results miss the actual results by significantly larger amounts. Either way, he post mortem will be interesting if the pools are really wrong this time.

  2. Trent Telenko Says:

    Given the near 100% cellphone use rate of the young and their mobility, the Obama campaign did itself a huge disservice playing primary non-turn out games in Michigan back in Feb 2012 –

    Obama’s Michigan Machinations
    Cagey tactics that will make life difficult for Republicans on Tuesday.


    I thought this Slate article on the Democratic Michigan Primary was one of those “Too sneaky by half” schemes back in February 2012 and now it is turning out to be the case.

    A Civic virtue like regular voting is a habit. The way you make a marginal general election voter a hard core supporting partisan for the general election is to get them to vote in your own primary.

    Telling marginal voters _not to vote for you_ and expecting them to show up in the General Election nine-months later — when many have had their long term unemployment benefits run out — is setting yourself up to fail.

    Trying to deny the GOP hard voting data on Democrats in Michigan combined with the extreme cellphone penetration with the young gave the Obama GOTV campaign some really incorrect reads when their face-to-face canvassers started walking their rounds.

    Hence the big media buy in Detroit by the Obama campaign.

    IMO, the Obama campaign doesn’t know where their young 2008 Michigan voters are.