Barack Obama has raised a ton of money and draws large crowds everywhere he goes. But he's stuck in second place in the polls.
One reason, says his campaign, is that polls don't capture his young fans, many of whom rely exclusively on their cell phones. Researchers are concerned about more and more people ditching their landlines, but they also stand by their polls.
A Growing Group
The number of people who have dropped their landlines in favor of cell phones isn't really all that large. The problem is, that number is growing like crazy.
"We were all scared to death in 2004, because we had a close race and the cell phone-only problem was already with us then," says Scott Keeter, the head of surveys at the Pew Research Center.
Exit polls for the 2004 presidential election found some 7 percent of voters said they used their cell phones exclusively. Keeter says that number is likely to grow to nearly 15 percent by the 2008 election.
Pollsters have learned quite a bit about the cell phone-only users they do call. They are most likely to be under 30, unmarried, renters, making less than $30,000 a year, and are slightly more likely to be black or Hispanic, says Keeter.
"The fact that they are very different is the potential problem for polling," Keeter says.
He adds, "It suggests that if there are enough of them, and you are missing them in your landline surveys, then your polls will have a bias because of that."
Makes Polling Pricier
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says surveying people on their mobile phones is labor intensive and expensive.
"If you are calling someone at home between 5 and 9, presumably the only reason they can't take the call is because they don't want to or are washing the dishes," Greenberg says.
"But if you are calling someone on a cell phone, they might be driving, in a meeting, on a date — all kinds of reasons why they might refuse to take the survey. So you just get higher refusal rates with the cell phones, so you have to call more people."
Since most people have to pay for the incoming calls on their cell phones, pollsters who do call them often try to offer a financial incentive to make it up to them.
Another problem for pollsters: Federal law bans the use of automated dialing services on cell users, so each call has to be dialed by hand. As a result, pollsters tend to avoid mobile numbers altogether.
New Methodologies Needed
But can we trust polls that don't capture this rapidly growing segment of voters?
"The early evidence is that we don't have a problem yet," says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University.
He points out that cell phone-only users are still a small group, and they are less likely to actually vote, especially in primary elections. Zukin says poll takers adjust the numbers for mobile phone voters the same way they do for any other hard-to-reach group. They take the answers of people with similar demographics and make their answers count for more, to reflect the group as a whole.
"The national surveys that I've seen suggest the telephone landline young people and the cell phone young people are very, very close. There's not a misrepresentation going on," Zukin says.
Still, pollster Greenberg says, that method won't hold for long, as people who use only mobile phones, Internet phones and the like become the norm.
"In the long run, most pollsters and campaigns are going to have to figure out how to reach younger people," Greenberg says. "Because as they age and become a bigger and bigger part of the election, their technological communication habits are different from older votes. And we are going to have to completely rethink our technology for communicating with them."
Greenberg says she is already experimenting with surveys that include a mix of landline, cell phone, text message and Internet answers.