Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cell Phones - Research and the Elections

As we wade through the endless stream of political spots on every media with all their accusations there is another story behind this fall election in the U.S. that could be a major factor.  The telephone based polls that candidates and the media has used to track the public since the 40s could end up being very mis-leading.

Nearly every analysis of the polls shows a Republican leaning wave moving the House and maybe even the Senate to a Republican lean.  But, those polls are mostly done on by calling land line households since reaching out to cell phone users for research is costly and difficult. The national polls are more likely to use cell phone households, but on the local and state level it's still pretty costly and not used that much.  Much of the polling data being analyzed for this mid-term election could be off the mark.

In radio we know the cell phone only households and their effect on research.  For years we've struggled with incomplete data in the under 40 age cells and watched our samples decay.  Arbitron and Nielsen have both retooled their sample systems and now do a better job including cell phone households.  Still, we struggle with not enough cell phone sample, but at least we have a little more accuracy.

The Pew Center has reviewed the cell phone only households for the political polls and released the following data:

You can see that the Cell Phone only households are more likely to lean Democratic changing the pools by around 2 percent.   When you factor in that most research has a 3-5% variance and then add the 2% Democratic lean many of the Republican margins could suddenly be a lot closer than expected.

Could we see an election here where polling is suddenly in question?  Much like the famous Dewey - Truman election in the late 40s where polling predicted Dewey would win.  Back then phones were not in all households and when the non-phone households voted the polls were suddenly skewed.

We have relied on phone based research for nearly all our data on the audience over the years.  This fall we may see in a big way that the phone is flawed.  Cell phones, VOIP, Skype and so many other ways of personal communication have made the land line a thing of the past.  We - and the politicians - can't rely on it anymore for data on the audience.

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