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2014: Internet Polling’s Moment?

National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Jan. 8, 2014, 6:50 a.m.

We’ve writ­ten at length about the rap­id changes in the ways in which Amer­ic­ans com­mu­nic­ate and the im­pacts on polit­ic­al pro­fes­sions, par­tic­u­larly sur­vey re­search­ers. But Tues­day brought two fresh ex­amples of the way the in­dustry is re­act­ing to those changes — ex­amples that rep­res­ent a stark de­par­ture from pre­vi­ous polling con­ven­tions.

— Pub­lic Policy Polling, the pro­lif­ic Demo­crat­ic robopoll­ster, an­nounced Tues­day that 20% of their in­ter­views will now be con­duc­ted via In­ter­net, in an ef­fort to reach the more-than 40% of Amer­ic­ans without land­line phones. We’ve long been crit­ic­al of PPP for ex­clud­ing cell-phone-only voters, and, des­pite the usu­al caveats about opt-in In­ter­net polls (and oth­ers about mixed-mode sur­veys com­bin­ing more than one meth­od­o­logy), this seems like a step in the right dir­ec­tion.

— The oth­er (more sig­ni­fic­ant) story comes from Glen Bol­ger and Trip Mul­len at Al­ex­an­dria, Va.-based GOP polling shop Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies. In a story for Cam­paigns & Elec­tions, Bol­ger and Mul­len out­line the ex­per­i­ments POS has been con­duct­ing with mo­bile sur­veys — that is, polls com­pleted via mo­bile app, which they say “of­fers an in­ter­act­ive ex­per­i­ence for the re­spond­ent that’s not pos­sible over the phone or even through on­line re­search. The ap­plic­a­tion al­lows sur­vey re­search­ers to har­ness mo­bile device cap­ab­il­it­ies like touch screens, built-in cam­er­as, and GPS po­s­i­tion­ing.” (The most en­ter­tain­ing part of Bol­ger and Mul­len’s piece: The pho­tos voters send when asked to take a snap­shot on their phones of something that re­minded them of the two polit­ic­al parties!)

— While POS and oth­er firms are start­ing to do lots of work on­line, this work is viewed more as a sup­ple­ment to their in­creas­ingly-ex­pens­ive, call-based phone polls. In oth­er words, the horse-race tele­phone poll isn’t go­ing any­where, even as Amer­ic­ans in­creas­ingly re­place land­lines with cell phones (and re­place cell phones with smart­phones that sup­port these kinds of apps). “I see them as dif­fer­ent products with dif­fer­ent ob­ject­ives. I don’t see how, today, from the work we’ve done in 2013, they oughta be blun­ted in­to one sur­vey re­sponse,” POS’s Bill McIn­turff said last year. “The polit­ic­al poll­sters will be the last, last, last people on the phones.”

Web- and mo­bile app-based polling will al­ways be ana­thema to some in the sur­vey re­search com­munity be­cause they es­chew the prin­ciple of prob­ab­il­ity sampling — the idea that every mem­ber of the sampling frame (re­gistered voters in Vir­gin­ia, for ex­ample) has an equal chance of be­ing se­lec­ted to par­ti­cip­ate. But every house­hold doesn’t have a home phone any­more, and call­ing cell phones is — in some cases — pro­hib­it­ively ex­pens­ive. It’s clear that non-prob­ab­il­ity web and mo­bile re­search is pro­gress­ing — on two tracks. Pub­lic and me­dia polls are us­ing opt-in In­ter­net and mo­bile sur­veys to re­place more ex­pens­ive, live-caller ef­forts. PPP joins Rasmussen Re­ports and Sur­vey­USA in do­ing cell-only sub­samples via the In­ter­net, and the As­so­ci­ated Press and Re­u­ters have already moved en­tirely on­line. On the cam­paign side, In­ter­net and mo­bile polling is in­creas­ingly a ma­jor tool for ad and mes­sage test­ing and oth­er sup­ple­ment­al re­search, but the ba­sic horse-race, brush­fire poll mod­el re­mains the dom­in­ant mode, des­pite rising costs.

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