Americans Continue to Drop Their Landline Phones

A picture taken on October 12, 2011 in the French western city of Rennes shows (FromL) a Samsung phone, a Blackberry phone and an Iphone 4.
National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Dec. 18, 2013, 8:57 a.m.

More than two in five Amer­ic­an adults live in house­holds without a land­line tele­phone, the most re­cent meas­ure of so­ci­ety’s move­ment to­ward mo­bile phones — a phe­nomen­on that con­tin­ues to roil polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als, par­tic­u­larly poll­sters, who rely on phone in­ter­views to de­term­ine the views of the broad­er pop­u­la­tion.

Thirty-eight per­cent of adults in the U.S. live in house­holds that have only a wire­less tele­phone, while 2.2 per­cent have no phone at all, ac­cord­ing to new data col­lec­ted by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion dur­ing the first half of 2013 and re­leased Wed­nes­day. A shrink­ing ma­jor­ity of adults, 52.8 per­cent, have both a land­line and wire­less phone, while only 6.9 per­cent live in a house­hold with just a land­line phone and no mo­bile phone.

The num­ber of Amer­ic­ans abandon­ing their land­line phones con­tin­ues to in­crease. In the second half of last year, 36.5 per­cent of adults lived in wire­less-only house­holds. The change is more dra­mat­ic when viewed through a wider time win­dow: Just three years ago, 24.9 per­cent of adults lived in cell-phone-only house­holds.

The new re­port un­der­scores the dra­mat­ic changes over the past 15 years in the ways in which Amer­ic­ans com­mu­nic­ate with one an­oth­er, and it also high­lights a prob­lem for polit­ic­al con­sult­ants who rely on tele­phones — either as a means of meas­ur­ing voters’ in­ten­tions and po­s­i­tions, or a way to reach voters to spread their mes­sage.

The prob­lem isn’t just that Amer­ic­ans are abandon­ing their land­line phones, it’s that dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ic groups have made the switch at dif­fer­ent rates. The ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans un­der age 35 are cell phone-only, but just 12.6 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans 65 and older are. Half of His­pan­ics only have wire­less phones, but that num­ber drops to 35.1 per­cent among whites. A whop­ping 74.7 per­cent of adults liv­ing with un­re­lated room­mates didn’t have a land­line phone at home, but just 27.2 per­cent of adults who own their home did.

Wire­less sub­sti­tu­tion also var­ies by state. Ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate re­port ana­lyz­ing 2012 data, also re­leased Wed­nes­day by the CDC, more than half, 52.3 per­cent, of Idaho­ans live in wire­less-only house­holds, while just 19.4 per­cent of New Jer­sey res­id­ents do. The states with the greatest num­bers of adults in cell-phone-only house­holds tend to be more rur­al: Mis­sis­sippi (49.4 per­cent), Arkan­sas (49 per­cent), and Utah (46.6 per­cent). Mean­while, res­id­ents of North­east­ern states are the least likely to give up their land­lines: Con­necti­c­ut (20.6 per­cent), Delaware (23.3 per­cent), New York (23.5 per­cent), Mas­sachu­setts (24.1 per­cent), and Rhode Is­land (24.9 per­cent).

Poll­sters, in par­tic­u­lar, have grappled with Amer­ic­ans’ aban­don­ment of cell phones for years. Call­ing cell phones is more ex­pens­ive than di­al­ing land­lines be­cause the phone num­ber must be dialed manu­ally, per fed­er­al law. That makes auto­mated calls to cell phones il­leg­al, and it means that even those live-caller polls that use a com­puter dialer to save time can’t reach cells, either.

Be­cause dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ic groups are re­pla­cing their land­line phones at dif­fer­ent rates, call­ing too few cell phones car­ries sig­ni­fic­ant risks. For ex­ample, a re­cent auto­mated tele­phone poll in Mis­sis­sippi meas­ured voters’ opin­ions about Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Thad Co­chran’s reelec­tion bid. But that poll­ster dialed only land­line phones, which means that voters without land­lines — who con­sti­tute a sig­ni­fic­ant per­cent­age of the elect­or­ate, giv­en that roughly half of adults there live in homes with only cell phones — couldn’t be a part of the sample. (The poll­ster in Mis­sis­sippi, the Demo­crat­ic firm Pub­lic Policy Polling, is cur­rently so­li­cit­ing plans for in­clud­ing cell-only re­spond­ents.)

There are some factors that mit­ig­ate — to an ex­tent — the rami­fic­a­tions of these changes for polit­ic­al polling. It’s true that turnout rates are high­er among some of the demo­graph­ics that are more likely to have land­line phones, like seni­ors. And most poll­sters also do a pretty good job weight­ing the sample to re­flect the pop­u­la­tion they are try­ing to mod­el — wheth­er all adults or a likely elect­or­ate. (Though, some­times, the choices poll­sters make in weight­ing their samples gets them in trouble, as in PPP’s case.)

Some poll­sters have made the choice to call more cell phones. On the pub­lic side, half of Gal­lup’s in­ter­views are con­duc­ted by cell phone, and roughly half of re­spond­ents in the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s latest poll were con­tac­ted by cell phone, too.

On the polit­ic­al side, the is­sue is more com­plic­ated. PPP works for a num­ber of out­side Demo­crat­ic groups, des­pite the fact they can’t call cell phones. Re­pub­lic­ans, stung by 2012 losses some didn’t see com­ing, launched an ex­haust­ive re­view of their polling pro­ced­ures, which res­ul­ted in spe­cif­ic re­com­mend­a­tions from the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee to in­crease the per­cent­age of cell-phone in­ter­views in their sur­veys.

Some have sug­ges­ted that the an­swer to these prob­lems is sur­vey­ing people over the In­ter­net; news out­lets like the As­so­ci­ated Press and Re­u­ters have re­cently ditched their tele­phone-polling op­er­a­tions and moved on­line. But In­ter­net polls are of­ten non-ran­dom, and many poll­sters re­main skep­tic­al of the ap­proach.

There is a lack of con­sensus on a path for­ward for polit­ic­al polling, but, if cur­rent trends con­tin­ue, roughly half of adults will be un­reach­able by land­line phone by 2016.

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