Prominent Democratic Pollster Changing Its Methodology

Public Policy Polling will be adding cell-phone users to its sample.

Action on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida
National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:19 a.m.

The Demo­crat­ic robo-polling firm Pub­lic Policy Polling is ex­plor­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant change to its meth­od­o­logy to in­clude the tens of mil­lions of voters who do not have land­line tele­phones.

PPP next Tues­day will is­sue a re­quest for pro­pos­als on in­clud­ing re­spond­ents who only have cell phones, said Tom Jensen, the firm’s dir­ect­or, who over­sees PPP’s day-to-day op­er­a­tions. These pro­pos­als may in­clude live-op­er­at­or phone calls to cell-phone re­spond­ents and text- and In­ter­net-based re­sponses.

The auto­mated tech­no­logy em­ployed by PPP and oth­er robo-poll­sters is less ex­pens­ive than tra­di­tion­al tele­phone polling, since there’s no need to em­ploy live in­ter­view­ers to ques­tion re­spond­ents and re­cord their an­swers. But fed­er­al law pro­hib­its auto­mat­ic dialers from call­ing cell phones, mean­ing that PPP’s sur­veys have only in­cluded land­line in­ter­views.

This has had a broad im­pact on the in­dustry. Since even most live-op­er­at­or polling firms use com­pu­ter­ized dialers, in­cor­por­at­ing more cell-phone re­spond­ents has been a costly en­deavor. But it has a broad­er im­pact for auto­mated poll­sters.

PPP’s pub­lic polls have be­come ubi­quit­ous in re­cent years, with polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers re­ly­ing on their sur­veys to touch on over­looked races and fill in the gaps cre­ated by shrink­ing me­dia budgets. That’s a gap that PPP has filled em­phat­ic­ally; the week­end be­fore last year’s elec­tion, the firm con­duc­ted pub­lic sur­veys in 19 dif­fer­ent states.

Some robo-polling firms, in­clud­ing Sur­vey­USA and Rasmussen Re­ports, have already taken steps to in­clude cell-phone re­spond­ents. Rasmussen began us­ing In­ter­net-based pan­els to sup­ple­ment their land­line in­ter­views last year, and Sur­vey­USA has been ex­per­i­ment­ing with both In­ter­net and live-caller in­ter­views.

Jensen said PPP is open to any pro­pos­al, and he hopes that po­ten­tial vendors for this sur­vey in­fra­struc­ture pitch him on a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ideas. “We cer­tainly know what oth­er people are do­ing, but we don’t really know the mech­an­ics of it,” he said.

The re­quest for pro­pos­als in­cludes a num­ber of factors for vendors to con­sider in mak­ing their pro­pos­als that speak to some of PPP’s unique chal­lenges. Though most polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers know PPP for the pub­lic polls they pro­duce and re­lease on their own web­site, the firm also works for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates and causes. Ac­cord­ing to the re­quest, PPP is look­ing for pitches that would al­low it to provide the same, quick turn­around time for its sur­veys, in ad­di­tion to what the firm calls “scalab­il­ity” — the abil­ity to con­duct a poll in a small geo­graph­ic area for a loc­al or mu­ni­cip­al can­did­ate.

Take a loc­al, D.C. Coun­cil race, for ex­ample: Us­ing land­line ex­changes and lis­ted phone num­bers, it’s not dif­fi­cult to com­pile a sampling frame to in­clude only those num­bers cor­res­pond­ing to ad­dresses with­in the cor­rect ward. But since cell phones aren’t as­so­ci­ated with a phys­ic­al ad­dress, call­ing all num­bers with a “202” area code would mean that (as­sum­ing equal in­cid­ence of cell-phone own­er­ship) sev­en of every eight re­spond­ents wouldn’t be eli­gible to vote in that elec­tion. And that also as­sumes that voters don’t have “301” or “703” (or any oth­er area code) phones.

The oth­er key factor for PPP is af­ford­ab­il­ity. Be­cause of its auto­mated meth­od­o­logy, PPP’s prices are lower than oth­er Demo­crat­ic cam­paign poll­sters — and it in­tends to keep them that way. “We spe­cial­ize in provid­ing af­ford­able polling ser­vices to cli­ents who might not oth­er­wise be able to af­ford to do sur­vey re­search,” the firm’s re­quest for pro­pos­als states.

That means the firm is un­likely to fo­cus on the ex­pens­ive prac­tice of call­ing cell phones with live in­ter­view­ers as its main solu­tion to the cell-phone prob­lem, though Jensen said they could con­tract with a call cen­ter for that ser­vice if the cli­ent in­sisted.

Whatever solu­tion PPP de­cides to ex­plore, ex­pect it to be im­ple­men­ted on its pub­lic polls, as well — the one-to-three weekly sur­veys the firm con­ducts at its own ex­pense as a mar­ket­ing tool (this week, it was a poll of the Maine Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al races).

“Our first choice would be something that’s cost-ef­fect­ive enough and easy enough to use on all of our sur­veys,” Jensen said.

Earli­er this year, Jensen told Hot­line On Call that it was likely his firm would ex­plore ways to in­cor­por­ate those without land­line phones. More than 38 per­cent of adult Amer­ic­ans live in house­holds without a land­line phone, ac­cord­ing to the latest data from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, col­lec­ted dur­ing the second half of 2012.

“I think there’s a de­cent chance that we can keep on not call­ing cell phones and get­ting de­cent res­ults,” Jensen said Thursday. “Ob­vi­ously, we want our polls to be reach­ing as close to 100 per­cent of the pub­lic as pos­sible.”

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