2016 Could Mark Telephone Poll's Last Stand

Ask any pollster how confident they are that voters will really choose Donald Trump, the demagogic businessman, as the Republican presidential nominee, and they’ll say, “Not very.”

Then again, Trump is so far ahead, how could the polls be wrong? The lack of confidence is striking, but it’s because the traditional telephone poll has become a creaky, expensive and outdated system for gauging Americans’ preferences.

With cheaper, more flexible Internet polling gaining precision, this could be the phone poll’s last stand — especially if the pollsters mess it up. And there’s a good chance they will. The problem, simply put, is that people just don’t answer their phones for pollsters anymore. The decline of landlines, prohibitions on autodialing cell phones and the proliferation of caller identification systems all contribute to the weaker response, as does a general suspicion of solicitations from strangers.

Like a broad swath of industries before it, polling is on the verge of succumbing to the Internet’s transformative force. “I think the Internet poll is where we are going,” says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy and political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “Four years from now, maybe we won’t have telephone polls.”

That’s a bold statement coming from a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the polling industry’s professional society and upholder of its standards. When The New York Times decided to work with the Internet polling firm YouGov during the 2014 campaign, the association issued a scathing critique of its abandonment of scientific rigor.

But efforts to forestall the inevitable haven’t helped the music, newspaper or book retailing industries. Each has had to adapt, and the polling industry will too.

The conventional wisdom has it that the phone poll’s gravest problem is that people no longer pick up for callers they don’t know. And that is a big problem. When pollsters call nowadays, less than 10 percent of their calls reach someone willing to answer their questions. As recently as 20 years ago, they were successful a third of the time.

But the more serious threat is actually the Internet’s power as a communications tool, specifically its ability to reach many more people than a telephone at a fraction of the cost.

“The restrictions are getting more and more severe” for phone polls, says Douglas Rivers, the chief scientist for YouGov, which has also worked with CBS News and CQ Roll Call’s parent company, The Economist Group. “The phone poll is disappearing. How long it will take isn’t clear.”

Polling has always been one part information gathering and one part analysis of that information. When people answered their phones, polling was more science (information gathering) than art (analysis). Now it’s the other way around.

Rivers’ title aside, Internet polling lacks the scientific rigor of the traditional phone poll. The best phone polls take a random sample of all phone numbers and call them. The typical Internet poll lures respondents with Web ads. The results are not a random sample.

But that distinction, once considered a critical differentiator between a good poll and a bad one, is fuzzier now that so few people answer their phones.

“If you have a random sample and combine that with a 90 percent non-response rate, you now have a nonrandom sample,” says Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University and an advocate of Internet polling.

Adds Rivers: “The claim that it’s random is ludicrous.”

Campaigns are already experimenting with Internet polls, if not to gauge their standing in the race, then to test advertising messages. And the political parties are looking at them as well: “I don’t care where we get our data as long as it’s the most accurate data collection possible,” says Daniel Huey, a senior adviser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Of course, Internet pollsters must analyze their data and make projections about voter turnout, just like phone pollsters. But they have a big advantage: They can collect vastly more data and do it cheaply.

With all the problems of phone polling, and the cost incentives that favor the Web, it will be tough for candidates and parties to resist the urge to switch, especially when the results are equivalent or better for the Web pollsters. And they are getting there: When polling analyst Nate Silver issued his report card for pollsters following the 2012 campaign, Internet polls held their own, filling four of the top seven spots in the rankings. Gallup, long the gold standard in phone polling, finished last, having predicted a narrow victory for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

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