The GOP’s Cautious Approach to Online Polling

As more public surveys move to the internet, GOP pollsters are uneasy about emerging modes.

National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Sept. 13, 2013, 9:21 a.m.

One sub­ject that may have got­ten short shrift in my story on the Re­pub­lic­an polling re­boot in Na­tion­al Journ­al magazine (avail­able for Na­tion­al Journ­al mem­bers) is the fu­ture of non-tele­phone sur­vey modes, par­tic­u­larly in­ter­net polling, which is grow­ing in use and pop­ular­ity. Most of the poll­sters I spoke to em­phas­ized that they were still fo­cused on phone polling, but some are at least be­gin­ning to ex­per­i­ment with web and mo­bile sur­veys.

Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Alex Lun­dry, who works at the Al­ex­an­dria, Va., firm Tar­get­Point Con­sult­ing, thinks the GOP polling re­in­ven­tion only scratches the sur­face by ig­nor­ing “emer­ging modes.” “We are op­tim­iz­ing a fail­ing but func­tion­ing sys­tem” in tele­phone polling, Lun­dry said. “We’ve also got to be put­ting re­sources in­to op­tim­iz­ing an emer­ging and in­nov­at­ive sys­tem.”

Lun­dry, who led Rom­ney’s data team in 2012, said the lack of em­phas­is on in­ter­net polling makes the pro­ject short­sighted. “We can’t neg­lect the on­line side as well,” par­tic­u­larly for ad test­ing, he said. Do­ing a sur­vey on­line al­lows a cam­paign to show its ad­vert­ising — wheth­er tele­vi­sion, ra­dio or mail­er — to voters and cap­ture their im­me­di­ate re­ac­tions. But too few cam­paigns are util­iz­ing this tech­no­logy.

“Even among those cam­paigns that are mov­ing ad test­ing on­line, the num­bers aren’t that large, and they’re not uni­form,” Lun­dry ad­ded. “You lose the op­por­tun­it­ies to com­pare from ad-to-ad.”

But the re­com­mend­a­tions proffered by the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee and Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee (Lun­dry par­ti­cip­ated in the RNC’s Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject, he said) fo­cus ex­clus­ively on phone polling. “These dis­cus­sions and these things will con­tin­ue go­ing for­ward. The in­ter­net-slash-kinda di­git­al as­pects of the sur­veys is kinda an ex­cit­ing dir­ec­tion that some of these things are go­ing,” said NR­CC polit­ic­al dir­ect­or Rob Simms.

“I think for us, in some dis­tricts, that’s not go­ing to work, prac­tic­ally speak­ing. In some oth­er dis­tricts, it could be very use­ful,” Simms ad­ded.

Any ap­peal of web-based sur­veys in the near fu­ture to GOP cam­paign poll­sters might lie in it as a solu­tion to the cell phone prob­lem — the nearly 2-in-5 adult Amer­ic­ans who live in a house­hold without a land­line phone. Since cell phones are more ex­pens­ive to call (num­bers must be dialed by a hu­man be­ing, not a com­puter), polling these re­spond­ents over the in­ter­net­is a pos­sible solu­tion.

The fu­ture is “com­ing soon­er than people real­ize,” said GOP poll­ster John McLaugh­lin. “It’s go­ing to be more im­port­ant to have [a voter’s] email ad­dress or Face­book page than it’s go­ing to be to have their cell phone num­ber.”

Oth­er poll­sters are more skep­tic­al of do­ing mixed-mode re­search. Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies, in Al­ex­an­dria, Va., is one of the largest firms on the GOP side, but it was their work for NBC News and the Wall Street Journ­al in pro­du­cing their reg­u­lar, bi­par­tis­an sur­vey that al­lowed them to study this more closely. They, along with the Demo­crat­ic firm Hart Re­search As­so­ci­ates, con­duc­ted 5,000 in­ter­views with cell-phone-only re­spond­ents in 2012 as part of their NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al polling. “And so we have a pretty good pro­file of cell-phone-only re­spond­ents, in terms of who they are demo­graph­ic­ally and their at­ti­tudes,” said POS’s Bill McIn­turff, at an last week here in Wash­ing­ton on the fu­ture of polling, sponsored by the me­dia firm Kantar.

McIn­turff and POS then con­duc­ted large pan­els on in­ter­net and mo­bile devices with cell-phone-only re­spond­ents to see how the people reached there com­pared with those ac­tu­ally reached by di­al­ing a cell phone.

“They’re in­ter­est­ing be­cause they’re much bet­ter edu­cated than phone re­spond­ents, a lot less Latino, and, on most at­ti­tudes, they were the same, ex­cept for gay mar­riage and abor­tion, where the in­ter­net and the mo­bile cell-phone-only re­spond­ents were much, much more lib­er­al than the phone folks,” he said.

That made him doubt the valid­ity of do­ing mixed-mode polls. “And so this no­tion that there’s go­ing to be a world where you can com­bine meth­od­o­lo­gies, where you’re go­ing to com­bine phone, in­ter­net or mo­bile, maybe that world will come,” McIn­turff said. “But as I look at this data in 2013, I don’t think that you can simply take phone land­line and some­how com­bine it with a dif­fer­ent meth­od­o­logy and cre­ate one uni­fied sur­vey.”

“We are do­ing tons on the in­ter­net, we are … start­ing to do sub­stan­tial stuff on mo­bile,” he ad­ded. “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.”

The biggest im­ped­i­ment to us­ing the in­ter­net for cam­paign polls, McIn­turff said, is that there aren’t enough po­ten­tial re­spond­ents in your sampling frame — that is, the group of people who’ve vo­lun­teered to par­ti­cip­ate in in­ter­net polls — to sur­vey at the con­gres­sion­al dis­trict-level. That means that the phone sur­vey is go­ing to re­main the dom­in­ant mode for his firm and their com­pet­it­ors, even if oth­er seg­ments of the polling in­dustry mi­grate to in­ter­net or mo­bile.

“There simply are not large enough cell sizes in the in­ter­net pan­els, mo­bile pan­els and oth­ers to do [con­gres­sion­al dis­trict] or [state le­gis­lat­ive] work,” said McIn­turff. “The polit­ic­al poll­sters will be the last, last, last people on the phones.”

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