Have Pollsters Been Dialing the Right Numbers?

As the U.S. presidential election season winds down, a handful of political polls that include mobile phone users show Democrat Barack Obama beating Republican John McCain by a substantially wider margin than polls that do not include cell phone users.

In polls that extended to cell phones, Obama beat McCain by an average of 10 points versus just 5 points in polls limited to landlines, according to a survey released on Sunday by political blog site FiveThirtyEight.com.

FiveThirtyEight, whose name reflects the total number of votes in the Electoral College, is run by Chicago-based sports data guru Nate Silver. Silver is a writer, analyst and partner at Baseball Prospectus.

FiveThirtyEight released the survey results, which covered a group of 15 political polls conducted by well-known polling and media companies such as Zogby, Gallup, NBC and The Wall Street Journal.

FiveThirtyEight could not be reached for comment.

2008: Year of the Cell Phone

The standard method of doing a telephone poll for the last 30 years has been to call people at home, Michael Dimock, associate director at the Pew Research Center, told the E-Commerce Times.

Now, all of that is changing.

“This is the first election where both cell phones and landlines are being used by several major pollsters,” Dimock said.

Cell phones have been around since the late 1980s. Why has it taken pollsters so long to catch on?

“There’s a reason,” Dimock said. “Just two years ago, I think it was just 12 percent of the adult population was cell-only. The latest figures from the government show that 16 percent of adults in the country are cell-only. This was the first election cycle where many of the major pollsters said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.'”

What the Numbers Mean

It’s hard to say what the survey by FiveThirtyEight really means. Three polls done by Pew Research since the end of the primaries are equally inconclusive.

However, the Pew polls appear to reinforce the belief that Obama is benefiting from the support of young voters. That’s because people in their twenties tend to use just one phone — a wireless handset — in greater numbers than people in their forties and fifties, Dimock said.

Even in the Pew polls that combine cell phone and land-line users, Obama beats McCain, but not by much. The question then becomes: Are those polls conclusive?

“Are the differences significant? Not quite,” Dimock said.

In the first Pew poll, conducted from June 18 to June 29, 48 percent of the respondents voiced support for Obama to 40 percent for McCain. In the second poll, conducted from July 31 to Aug. 10, 46 percent of the respondents supported Obama to 43 percent for McCain. In the third poll, conducted from Sept. 9 to Sept. 14, 46 percent supported Obama to 44 percent for McCain.

Despite the fact that Obama’s support among young people seems to give him an edge in both cell phone-only polls and combined cell phone and land-line polls, it’s still difficult to draw conclusions as to who will win the election.

“The counterargument from other pollsters is that young people turn out at a much lower rate than older people on Election Day, which mitigates the perceived benefit of reaching the young cell-only people,” Dimock said. “Another counterargument is that people who are cell-only are more mobile and have less established residency. People who don’t move around as much undeniably vote in larger numbers. They know where to go and cast a ballot.”

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