Polling and Cell Phones

Yesterday at work I heard a conversation that blew my mind. I am going to paraphrase the conversation between two self-proclaimed Democrats (I heard them say it themselves–I am not guessing).

You know why the Republicans have a lead in the polls right? It is because they do this phone polling to people with land lines. They don’t even poll those with cell phones. So, really they are getting a small slice of the population. And you know what? Guess who can afford the land lines? The rich Republicans. That means that the poor, among many other sub groups are not counted in the polls. No wonder Bush is now in the lead in the polls.

Hold up. What? Did I hear you say normalization?

So, this means that all people in the United States who have a land lines are implied to be rich Republicans? Why is that hard for me to believe. Maybe I am naieve, which is possible, but I grew up everybody had a land line. Everybody. I know times have changed since the era of the cell phone, but is it that drastic? Am I that out of the loop? Being curious, and wanting solid details on what this person said, I went hunting on why cell phones were not included. Lo and behold I found the answer. It lies in the laws of this nation:

Automated calling of cell phones is illegal in the United States and there is a substantial fine for breaking the law. US Code Title 47, Chapter 5, Subchapter II, Part I, Sec. 227 reads:

It shall be unlawful for any person within the United States–
(A) to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice–

(iii) to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, cellular telephone service, specialized mobile radio service, or other radio common carrier service, or service for which the called party is charged for the call.

There ya have it. They can’t get that cellphone population because it is against the law and would cost a lot of money to get it.

Further I found out how little the cell population is.

Now getting back to Breslin’s column, in theory he is right that pollsters will miss people who have only a cell phone, but of the 169 million cell phones, most have a land line as well. It is estimated that 5% of the population is cell only. And most of these don’t live in battleground states. And then an effect occurs only if cell-only users differ from land line users in their political preference. Thus the error introduced by missing the cell-only customers is probably smaller than the error introduced by missing the overseas voters.

This will change over time as the cellphone population increases, but until this occurs, tradational polling methods will continue to be used. That is, until the population of cellphone users becomes so large that they cannot be ignored.

Thinking back to the origial conversation that I overheard I thought of this: do you want to be solicited on your cellphone? I know I don’t. I like the fact that when my phone rings it is someone that I know, not some solicitor trying to push some product or have me donate money to some organization on the phone. There are organizations that I donate to, but I will donate to them when I have the money, not the other way around. I do realize, however, that some organizations need to call to get the word out about what they are doing, and I realize that, but that is for a different post and I have become off topic.

To bring it back on track here, keep in mind that pollsters are exempt from the “Do not call” list. So, you can hissy at them for calling, but technically they can.

As for the accuracy of polls, I think that they can only be so accurate. I found the following a pretty good summary on normalization and how there are just too many aspects of the population to normalize for good poll results.

But using land lines is no bed of roses either. Many people use caller ID or their answering machine to do call screening. Busy young professionals are rarely home from work before 11 p.m. whereas lonely old people are only too happy to talk to the nice young girl who seems to care about what they think. Calls made at 2 p.m. are going to oversample housewives, and so on. All these effects lead to biases. To correct for them, pollsters conduct exit polls of voters leaving the polling place on election day to get a good idea of the statistical make up of the electorate for next time. These data are used to correct the polls. For example, if the exit polls show that 10% of the voters in some state are African Americans and in a state poll of 600 people by accident only 30 are African Americans (5%), the pollster can just count each African American twice. This process is called normalization. It was proposed for use to correct undercounts in the 2000 census but was rejected by the courts on the gronds that the constitution calls for an “enumeration” of the population, not a statistical model of the population.

Exactly what to normalize for is a controversial issue. Should the pollster make sure his poll has the statistically correct number of Catholics, gun owners, retirees, veterans, immigrants, union members, millionaires, welfare mothers, fat people, lesbians, and [fill in your favorite category]? Where do you draw the line? More specifically, should the pollster normalize to make sure the effective number of Democrats and Republicans is correct? Some pollsters do and some do not. And how many is correct?

Again, I think polls are only a gauge on where the population stands, not the final word. I will be taking all of the election night results with a grain of salt after last elction’s mis-predictions. Exit polls can only say so much. Let the votes do the counting not the exit polls. You my disagree with that, but I respect that and I would only hope that you can respect that I have said as well.

So, what do you do in the mean time? Be patient. The system will run its course and a President will be elected. I will be waiting until November 2nd to cast my vote and to let the process decide who will be President.

— All quoted material from electoral-vote.com