Politics March 2013

A More Perfect Poll

As opinion researchers hung up the phone and headed online last year, election forecasts grew more accurate. Has the Web-based survey finally come of age?
Mikey Burton

In the 2012 presidential election, we all thought we were smarter than the pollsters. Conservatives flocked to a site called UnskewedPolls.com, whose proprietor reconstituted the polls of major media organizations in proportions better suited to his vision of the American electorate—that is, one with more Republicans in it. Liberals, for their part, elevated to demigod status the statistician and New York Times blogger Nate Silver, who poured those same polls into a meat grinder and produced a neatly encased pronouncement that Barack Obama was overwhelmingly likely to win.

We didn’t just follow the polls, as we’ve always done; we questioned them, dissected them, tore them apart. Underlying all the partisan paranoia was a kernel of truth: political polling has been in crisis for years. But the real problem has nothing to do with a conspiracy to favor Democrats or Republicans. It’s that pollsters can’t get you on the phone. Telephone polling took over from door-to-door and mail-based surveys in the 1960s because it was reliable and cost-effective. Or rather, it was until Americans began ditching landlines: more than 30 percent of us now rely solely on cellphones, which are harder for pollsters to contact. An even greater difficulty stems from the fact that cellphone and landline users alike don’t answer the phone anymore. Pew’s response rate for its U.S. opinion research in 2012—the percentage of households in which someone agreed to be interviewed—was only 9 percent, down from 36 percent in 1997.

But a funny thing happened last fall, even as polling paranoia was raging: the polls got smarter, thanks in part to Internet-based polling, a method that had previously been seen as the industry’s redheaded stepchild. After the election, when Silver ranked 23 pollsters by how closely they approximated the presidential-election result, firms that had conducted their polls online took four of the top seven spots; in a separate ranking by a Fordham University professor, they took three of the top seven. Meanwhile, traditional, telephone-based survey groups like Gallup and the Associated Press scored near the bottom of both lists. That’s right: in 2012, polls that relied on people clicking on the equivalent of those “Your Opinion Counts!” pop-up ads proved a more effective gauge of the American electorate than the venerable Gallup Poll.

There’s reason to believe the Internet-based survey may be the future of political polling. If people are increasingly inaccessible by phone, they’re increasingly accessible online. Market research by big corporations, which have economic incentives to pursue fast, cheap, accurate data, has largely migrated to the Internet already. Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, whose online polls for Reuters placed a respectable sixth out of 28 in the Fordham professor’s rankings, told me that about 70 percent of corporate opinion studies are now Internet-based. Political polling is another matter, however. Bricker says he’s heard online researchers mocked on more Washington, D.C., political panels than he can count. Political consultants and the media have been cautious, even hidebound, about changing their polling standards in recent years. “I’m all for experimentation,” Jon Cohen, the polling director for The Washington Post, told me. “But until it’s been justified methodologically the way random polling with telephones has been, I’m skeptical.”

Presented by

Molly Ball is an Atlantic staff writer.

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