Archive for Sunday, October 26, 2008

Cell-only users ring warning bells for polls that rely on landlines

October 26, 2008


Reader poll
Have you considered using only a cell phone for service opposed to having a cell phone and a landline?

or See the results without voting


Election 2008

In-depth coverage of the candidates and the issues, all leading up to the Aug. 5 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.

As Election Day looms, pollsters are hurriedly updating numbers on the election's potential outcome.

But how accurate are those numbers compared to years past? With more and more people shunning landlines for cell phones, some observers are concerned that the traditionally landline-dominated survey is missing too much of America's population.

Polling's cell phone issue is a relatively new one, and there is no consensus on how big the problem really is. Because cell phone numbers aren't listed in phone books and most polling companies need to reimburse participants for the airtime, it's getting harder to get a complete survey.

"We have noticed that the number of young people in our samples has been decreasing," said Mike Walker, associate director of the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University. "We're assuming that's because of cell phones."

Cell-only households

In early 2003, just 3.2 percent of households were cell-only. By fall 2004, pollsters and journalists were openly worrying about the potential impact that cell-only households might create for political surveys, according to a 2007 Pew Research Study.

Research done this year by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 14.5 percent of households cannot be reached by a typical survey because they do not have landline phones.

The majority of those in cell-phone-only households are ages 18 to 24. Given these numbers, experts agree that it is a problem that will get worse in the future.

Given the speed with which the number of cell-only households has increased, there is growing concern within the polling business about how long the landline telephone survey will remain a viable data collection tool, the 2007 Pew Research study determined.

"If people who can only be reached by cell phone were just like those with landlines, their absence from surveys would not create a problem for polling," the Pew study found. "But cell-only adults are very different."

The study found them to be much younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, less likely to be married, and less likely to be a homeowner than adults with landline telephones.

Problems for pollsters

The solution to this problem is not simple, Mark Blumenthal says in his 2007 report "Cell Phones and Political Surveys." Blumenthal is editor and publisher of, a Web site that publishes daily poll results with commentary.

While pollsters can still call cell phones to get survey results, several factors discourage them from doing so.

"Most users pay for airtime, so pollsters feel obligated to offer financial reimbursement or incentives, either as a matter of law (in some states) or simply as a practical means of obtaining a reasonable response rate," Blumenthal said.

Additionally, the Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits unsolicited calls to a cell phone using automated dialing devices. Because most pollsters use automated computers, calling cell phones would require more manpower.

A Pew Research study done this year titled "Cell Phones and the 2008 Vote" found that "23 percent of cell-only young respondents say they 'always vote,' compared with 41 percent among the landline respondents."

"Younger people tend not to vote, (compared to) people who are age 35 and older," said Molly Longstreth, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Arkansas. "If younger people actually go out and vote then it will show that polls that didn't use cell phone data will not be as accurate as polls that did."

The Docking Institute has been experimenting with text messages that have a link to an online survey. "But there's something missing with that," Walker said. "With a landline, a surveyor has got you right there on the phone."

So how much is the younger demographic really skewing results? The Pew Research study done in 2007 stated: "While the cell-only problem is currently not biasing polls based on the entire population, it may very well be damaging estimates for certain subgroups in which the use of only a cell phone is more common. This concern is particularly relevant for young adults."

A Pew study done this year concludes that: "such a bias could be consequential in an election that appears to be very competitive right now, especially if significant numbers of young people turn out to vote."

Continuing concern

Based on an almost 20-percent preference for Barack Obama to John McCain among young cell phone users in the 2008 Pew study, the research suggests that estimates of candidate preference will be biased if cell phone interviewing is not included in the survey.

"For an election like this in which younger voters are motivated to register and to vote, there could be an undercount if polls do not include cell phone data," Longstreth said.

As more people get rid of their landline for cell phones - the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the jump to cell phone only households was almost 2 percent from 2007 to 2008 - it is likely that this issue will continue to grow in significance.

"It's a problem," said Walker of Fort Hays State. "We've got something we really need to address here."

- Mark Wampler is a Kansas State University journalism student.


mom_of_three 9 years, 6 months ago

If someone wants to hear your conversation, I don't think it matters what phone you are calling on. And no one with a right frame of mind is going to give out personal information on the phone, no matter if it is attached to a wall or not.

beatrice 9 years, 6 months ago

Mike, you and jayne's parents might be the exceptions. The majority of cell-only users are younger folks, although certainly they are not the only ones. Since young people generally don't actually vote, however, I'm not sure how much of a bounce Obama might get from this lot. For every cell-only user with a few years under the belt, it will probably take three of them there youngens to balance it out when it comes to voting. To all the Christies and Confrontations out there, please do not begin to dance just yet. It won't be over until it is actually over, and this race is too close for me to feel comfortable about a guaranteed Obama win. It looks promising, but it isn't over. We must encourage everyone we know to get out there and vote. Call them -- on what ever line they use. If people think it is in the bag for Obama, especially young people, they may not bother with the hassle of voting. Older folks will vote no matter what. Know this. Get out and vote, and remind others of how bad another four years of a Republican in the White House could be.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 6 months ago

Whenever my legacy landline rings, it is a warning bell. Pollsters should be equally concerned about land-based devices with callerID, answering systems, ( and message delete buttons ) .

beatrice 9 years, 6 months ago

For young people voting for the first time, the only President they have ever really been aware of has been the Republican, George W. Bush. That is the "leader" they have known growing up. Is anybody really surprised that new voters won't be voting for more of the same from the Republican party?

ihatelv 9 years, 6 months ago

-I'm Republican-I'm married-I'm 30-I own my home-I have not had a landline phone since 2002

janeyb 9 years, 6 months ago

My parents, aunt and uncle---55 and older---all going to vote for McCain---all have disconnected their hardlines in past 2 years. It is not just a youth thing.

christie 9 years, 6 months ago

Does frwent think that just because he's on a Land-Linenobody is listening??Your Government, under G.W. Bush is listening to you.OBAMA in a LANDSLIDE, no, make that TSUNAMI.The GOP is the GONE OLD PARTY. All over. Poof. Gone. You're all old, stupid, and ignorant.

Kyle Reed 9 years, 6 months ago

Election polls are annoying and their "results" only make it easy on those that feel the need to jump on the band wagon instead of doing the homework to form their own opinion on a candidate. Their apparent lack of longevity is a welcome thing in my book. Good riddance.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 6 months ago

... that little red blinking light on the base unit.

LiberalDude 9 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for this article! I've been wondering about this for a while.

Bubarubu 9 years, 6 months ago

Because of the labor-intensity of including cell phones in samples, its understandable that some polls from nonprofits and universities don't do it. The major national polling firms like Gallup and Bloomberg, do though. There are still problems with their methodology (Bloomberg seems to be undersampling Democrats and oversampling independents, for example), but new reliance on cell phones is not one of them. Strictly speaking, the argument from the article is right: polls that don't use cell phone data aren't very reliable. That shouldn't be used to indict the major national polls that are driving most political coverage though.

Mike Blur 9 years, 6 months ago

Exactly. I'm 44, and haven't had a landline since 2001. I have two numbers--my VOIP phone ($29 a year! One cent a minute. No taxes or fees!) and my cell phone, which I use when I'm away from the computer. It's a mistake for anyone to categorize cell-onlies as younger, or anything.

Kryptenx 9 years, 6 months ago

"Based on an almost 20-percent preference for Barack Obama to John McCain among young cell phone users in the 2008 Pew study, the research suggests that estimates of candidate preference will be biased if cell phone interviewing is not included in the survey."Hint: the article contains your answer. Maybe we're uninformed, but thankfully we're literate.

NoSpin 9 years, 6 months ago

It would be interesting to know who actually has 30 minutes of spare time and be zealous enough to want to answer poll questions. The polls are definitely skewed toward the left but how much to the left will be seen next Tuesday.

mom_of_three 9 years, 6 months ago

My husband ismarried, over 30,a republicanand a homeowner.disposed of our landline in early 2007

Bubarubu 9 years, 6 months ago

"Anyone else read it that way? Maybe I had a stroke during the night. I just have a hard time believing young voters are rooting for the old grandpa McCain."Yeah, they're not, and whether you had a stroke or not, you can't read. Young voters breaking 60-40 for Obama. Gallup's got it at 59-38. McCain is down in all age groups for Gallup, and has been since the Sept. 28 poll when he led among over 65. McCain's going to lose, and not by a little bit. Gallup has Obama winning by 9 among registered voters, 8 among the expanded likely voters, and 7 among traditional likely voters. Zogby's got Obama up 9.5 among likely voters. It'll close in the last two days, but Obama wins by 6-8% nationwide.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 9 years, 6 months ago

I am divorced, 64 years old, my house is paid for, my car is paid for, I pay all my bills the first week of the month. I tell every idiot sales person who queries me about their great "wireless" service that I do not own any phone that is not firmly attached to a wire coming out of a plug in the wall. I am not about to broadcast my personal conversations over airwaves that can be monitored by anyone with the right radio receiving equipment harvesting any personal information that I might prefer to remain personal. You can have your plastic toy phones and let everyone who has the capability listen in on your conversation, although from what I hear in the supermarket aisles, I cannot fanthom why anyone with a brain would want to listen to them, either on a radio receiver or standing in the way of traffic of the supermarket aisle blathering away letting everyone near you hear your idle dull chatter.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.