Reuters more enthusiastically embraced the new technology. It joined forces with Ipsos to launch national and state-level surveys for Reuters' American Mosiac project, which consists of tens of thousands of interviews this year, in addition to tracking polls leading up to Election Day. Previously, Ipsos had conducted more traditional, live-caller phone polls for the wire service, but as phone polling has become more expensive, Web-based surveys stand out as a more affordable alternative.
"We had a client in Reuters come to us at this time last year and say we want to do everything online because we want more data," said Julia Clark, vice president of Ipsos.
"One of the things we're seeing in the marketplace is that because of this new world of information, there's this expectation that you'll always have data," added Clifford Young, Ipsos' senior vice president and managing director. "There's this expectation of continuous data streams" by clients like Reuters that can more effectively be met by internet surveys, he said.
Young told National Journal that he thinks his firm's surveys "did very well overall."
"I would say that it was a learning experience over the course of the year," said Young. "I think we got better and more confident in our estimate as we neared the election. I would feel comfortable now doing another electoral cycle online."
YouGov's Doug Rivers also says his organization "did very well" this election cycle. The organization's work consisted of Web surveys in more than half the states, testing election matchups for presidential, Senate, and gubernatorial races. Responding to the charge that online polls can't represent the overall electorate because respondents opt in, rather than being randomly selected, Rivers told National Journal: "We've been doing this for a number of years, and the record's pretty good."
"It does depend on having the correct set of variables to select people from," continued Rivers. "We've changed that over the years, and we've improved it."
Rivers added that YouGov's opt-in surveys are not necessarily more self-selecting than telephone polls, considering the sharp drop in response rates over the past 15 years. "The difference is, do you hide behind the claim that it's a probability-based sample" with response rates that low, Rivers asked.
Many in more traditional survey research remain skeptical of online polling. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said at the AAPOR event that despite the industry's strong overall performance, "there were also online polls in the particular states that were far off."
"Has it proven itself in my mind?" Mellman asked rhetorically. "Not yet."
Gary Langer, who produces polls for ABC News, is a leading evangelist for traditional, live-caller polling methods. In a phone interview with National Journal about 2012 election polling, Langer pilloried online polling, calling their sampling frame "a club of people who signed up to take point-and-click surveys for points redeemable for cash and gifts."
Noting that the final ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll of the presidential campaign accurately predicted the election result — the poll showed Obama leading Romney, 50 percent to 47 percent — Langer called it "a silly place to claim credit," for pollsters of all stripes, including those he sees as using less rigorous methodologies. "Horse-race accuracy in preelection polls is probably one of the worst ways to measure accuracy in polling overall," Langer said.
Langer's work, he said, focuses more on how Americans feel about the issues and the candidates on which the election is focused. "To boil that all down to the silly horse-race," he said, "it really devalues our enterprise and dumbs down our coverage in it."
A 'Silver' Bullet
Online pollsters hope 2012 proves to be a watershed election for their methods, and that the performance of Internet polls, along with other changes in political coverage, will lead to greater acceptance of their work.
"The New York Times, and the AP, and The Washington Post, and people like that: Will they report these polls?" asked YouGov's Rivers. "I don't know. I think it's silly [that they don't]. They should report the data that's out there and properly characterize it."
Ipsos' Young said that he is optimistic that the influence of predictive models on political news coverage — from the Times' Silver, to the HuffPost Pollster model, to the more simplistic Real Clear Politics Average — will also lead pollsters, media, and consumers to be more accepting of Web polling. He and Clark referred National Journal to an Ipsos white paper comparing their efforts to account for the non-probablistic sampling of online polls through Bayesian modeling with the decisions Silver and others make in assembling their election-prediction models.
"I think our profession has moved a lot. I think that we've shifted a lot. [But] I think ultimately, there's still a lot of hesitancy," said Young. "There is a distinct link between testing new approaches and the perspective that Nate Silver and other models are bringing."