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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."
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 Pollster.com, 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."
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.