Cell Phones and Election Polls

The growing number of cell-phone-only households gives Democrats hope that the polls are undercounting them.

Because most national polling is done by telephone, there have been predictions for some time now that the growing number of cell-phone-only households would undermine their accuracies.  Democrats are hoping that 2010 is their year.

Dodd Harris points me to Thursday’s posting by Drdemocrat at Daily Kos.

McClatchy/Marist has a new poll out today in which they included in their poll voters who use cell only as well as landline voters.  They have found that among registered voters Democrats lead 47% to 41% and in the case of likely voters it is tied at Republicans 46% and Democrats 46%.

McClatchy/Marist have a new poll out that shows that Democrats have caught up with Republicans in terms of being a likely voter.  Unlike automated polls (PPP, Rasmussen, FOX, etc), this poll added cell only voters as part of their panel.  This is important because PEW poll has shown that voters who use cell phone only are much more likely to be younger and Democrats.  Furthermore PEW has shown that more and more voters are using cell only in communication and that can be as high as 23% of voters.

He cites Jonathan Singer:

The Democrats’ strength among registered voters comes directly from the cell-only population.

Among the roughly three-fourths of registered voters interviewed on a landline by Marist for McClatchy, Democrats and Republicans were tied on the generic congressional ballot with 43 percent apiece. However, among the roughly one-quarter of registered voters interviewed on their cell phones, the Democrats held a sizable 59 percent to 33 percent lead.

This data buttresses the findings published earlier this month by Pew that if pollsters are skipping cell-only voters — exactly the type of voters who are more likely to vote Democratic — their results may simply be too favorable for the GOP.

Following this back to October 13th’s Pew release:

In three of four election polls conducted since the spring of this year, estimates from the landline samples alone produced slightly more support for Republican candidates and less support for Democratic candidates, resulting in differences of four to six points in the margin. One poll showed no difference between the landline and combined samples.


Limiting the analysis in the survey to those considered most likely to vote in this year’s elections, a similar bias is evident. The combined landline and cell estimate produced a seven-point Republican advantage: 50% supported the GOP candidate for Congress in their district while 43% backed the Democratic candidate. The Republican lead would have been 12 points if only the landline sample had been interviewed, a significant difference from the combined sample of five points in the margin.

An “About the Surveys” graphic that accompanies the article notes the obvious fact that “respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the sample.”

It’s important at the outset to distinguish between media polls, which are done for entertainment purposes — creating faux news around which to build a series of exclusive stories for the financer — and professional polls conducted for political parties, candidates, and activist groups who have something riding on the outcome. The former, naturally, will be done as cheaply as possible.  The latter, because people are making decisions based on the numbers, are weighted towards accuracy.

This distinction is important because current law allows automated dialing for political polling — one of the exceptions to  Do Not Call  – but only for landlines.  Those wishing to poll cell phone users, by contrast, have to have a human being dial the number manually and wait for someone to pick up.   This, naturally, is much more expensive.

Because of the aforementioned incentives, mass media polls are not going to bother with the cell phone sampling.   High caliber firms paid significant sums by candidates, party organizations, and public policy groups to get the numbers right, by contrast, have no choice.

So, is it possible that the media polls we’re seeing are slightly over-sampling Republicans?   Yes.  And, if they get enough egg on their face, they’ll be forced to catch up to the practices of those doing real polling.

But here’s the thing:  We have no reason to believe at this juncture that the real polls are telling a substantially different story.   The party leaders and activists, who are seeing the good numbers, seem to believe that there’s a massive Republican wave coming Tuesday.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The one question about cell phone polling that I’ve never found a good answer to is where pollsters are getting the numbers from.

    There’s no central directory of cell numbers, so unless they’re just randomly dialing exchanges associated with cell phone providers, I’m not sure if they’re working with a good sample.

    Moreover, I am far more likely to ignore a call from a number I don’t know on my cell phone than I ever was when I had a landline with Caller ID. I suspect many people are like that. So, it would seem that there’s some sizable percentage of users that are going to be missed even if you do try to include cell-only users in your sample.

    Perhaps I’m missing something here that someone more familiar with this can fill me in on.

  2. James Joyner says:

    As I understand it, there are lists that pollsters can buy.

    I’m not quite sure how they factor non-responses for cells vs landlines but, since “random” sampling isn’t really random, they should simply be replacing someone in the demo who doesn’t answer for someone who does. Granted, non-responders are different than responders. But they’ve been handling that for years with landlines and still come remarkably close to the final numbers.

  3. I can easily see how cell phone users would become annoyed by this, though. We still live in a world where people get charged for a cell call whether or not they originate, which is different from how a landline works. So, if someone calls me it ends up on my bill one way or another.

    Now, granted, a lot of people have unlimited call plans now, or plans that make calls after a certain hour not count against monthly allowances. Still, this strikes me as something pollsters will need to take into account once they start calling cell phones on a more regular basis.

  4. JKB says:

    Well, first off, you should not ignore pollsters or for that matter telemarketers. You should engage them as long as possible and lie like a politician. Only by increasing their costs and diluting their product will have hope of stopping their annoyances.

    Second, to answer questions from some unknown caller about controversial political issues is foolish. No upside for you and as we saw with gay rights in CA and with the mad desire for donor lists this election, the intent is to attack and retaliate against those who don’t hold the “right” opinions. So answer some random caller’s questions is basically like clicking a link in an unsolicited email, you might get rich but more likely you’ll get infected with a virus that never really leaves you alone.

    Third, we can’t be sure, with the media, that this isn’t a plant to prep stories about how all those unexpected Democrat votes appeared out of no where. There has to be an explanation for the fraud if they hope to get away with it.

  5. What this shows is how critical it is for the Democrats to get out their vote. The Democrats lead among registered voters, and polls underestimate their strength by excluding cell phone only voters, who tend to be more Democratic, but less likely to vote. So, we all need to get involved in GOTV efforts to turn those registered voters into actual voters.


  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    As I think you recounted in one of your earlier posts Jim the response rate on all polls has fallen to around 15% versus the 45% they used to achieve a few years ago. I’ve been robo polled a few times and never bother responding. I guess we’ll see how good they are next Wednesday.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    JKB: oh boy the fraud bogeyman. I wouldn’t put it past the media to create storylines after all they are doing it all the time but this little victim act is getting old.

  8. just me says:

    I am curious about the assumption that cell phone only households are democratic. Has it been studied or do they assume this as fact?

    We have been cell phone only for about 2 years now and most of my votes over the last 15 years have gone to the republican candidate and they will be in the upcoming election (this is the first time I will not be voting for the governor who is a democrat-although I fully expect him to still win once the votes are counted).

  9. James Joyner says:

    I am curious about the assumption that cell phone only households are democratic. Has it been studied or do they assume this as fact?

    It’s not that they’re uniformly Democratic, just moreso than the population as a whole. Which makes sense: Cell-only types are predominantly under-30s who never had a landline to begin with. Frankly, I’d do it, too, but we get basic landline service pretty cheaply and 911 service is a stupid thing not to have if you’ve got small children and the means to pay for it without cutting back.

  10. Kathy Miller says:

    And where do Skype users and Vonage users fit? Frankly Vonage lets you use 911 but you don’t have a landline. I think the pollsters are going to have to become more and more creative to get their results.

  11. Marvin says:

    I think it’s possible that the polling is off in a big way. It was in 1998. Hopefully it is this year as well because it would be awfully sad for this country to make such a horrible mistake as to vote the GOP back into power.

    That said; I am trying to prepare myself for the worst.

  12. matt says:

    James you can use 911 on a cell phone even if there are no minutes available. Most cell phones have the option to give your location to the operator when calling 911 which further speeds up the response…