Beware of any claims that the demographic or partisan makeup of a future electorate will differ significantly from historic trends. The truth is that while the candidates and issues may change drastically from cycle to cycle, changes among electorates are much more incremental.
For proof, just look at the similarities between the exit poll data in 2006 and 2010. Because one produced a 31-seat victory for Democrats, and the other delivered a 63-seat gain to Republicans, we often think of these two elections as cases of one party streaming to the polls while the other stayed dejectedly at home. Yet the data tell a very different story, as the partisan makeup of the two electorates was virtually identical. It differed by just two points. In 2006, Democrats held a two-point edge in party identification (38 percent to 36 percent). In 2010, the two parties were tied (35 percent to 35 percent).
The dramatic difference in results was due less to changes in who went to the polls and due more to the 38-point shift in the vote among independents. It shows that even in wave elections at opposite ends of the political spectrum, demographics and recent turnout trends are stubbornly persistent.
Take more time in the field
Polling is like fine wine—you have to give it time to produce the quality you expect. Campaigns and clients are always in a hurry, but polling should not be rushed. Pollsters now have the challenge of contending and competing with a food of other polls, paid phone programs, modeling, and marketing calls that make it harder for them to collect good data. Add on top of that caller ID and robo notifications from dentists, schools, and pharmacies, and it’s clear that people are being inundated with calls.
As a result, it becomes much more difficult to reach voters and get a representative sample. And that is where taking your time, doing proper callback procedures and lengthening the number of days you field a poll will help ensure quality results. At the end of the day you want the right interview not just any interview, and that may mean calling the prime person identified in a sample five times or more over the course of a poll before you move onto his or her neighbor.
Where are we headed?
Given all the challenges facing pollsters today, what lies in store for the future of polling? We are most likely headed towards a blended methodology approach, in which a single poll may be conducted, not only over landlines and cellphones, but also online and via text messaging. While calling voters on their cellphones may be critical to reaching them now, there is already data suggesting this method will be insufficient for reaching future generations of voters.
Last year, Pew Research found that just 39 percent of teenagers talk on their cellphone daily. That’s compared to 63 percent who text every day. Reaching voters on their cellphones is likely to become even more important, but pollsters may have to go about doing it in a completely different way.
Pollsters are increasingly turning to online polls as a cost-effective way to measure voter attitudes, and while online polls can be a very valuable supplement to telephone polling, they are not a substitute. This is because the same quality that makes online polls affordable their opt-in panels in which respondents receive incentives for taking surveys also prevents them from being truly random or representative.
Given the shortcomings of the sample, online polls are not ideal for gauging the state of the race or identifying key target groups. However, as long as care is taken to ensure that they represent the demographic and partisan makeup of the electorate, online polls can be an extremely cost-effective way for campaigns to test messages, mail pieces or ads.
In fact, some of the best message-testing methodologies are now only available online, making online polls arguably a better tool for testing messages than traditional polls, and at a fraction of the cost. This makes them an especially useful tool for campaign pollsters, as our role is much more about message development than prognostication.
There’s no doubt polling is becoming more difficult, but as the 2012 elections demonstrated, there is no evidence that it’s becoming less accurate. There will always be bad polls, but when taken as a whole, polls continue to be remarkably reliable at predicting election results. Whether that trend continues remains to be seen, but for now pollsters who do it right, get it right.
And as long as they continue to adapt to new ways of reaching voters and allow data to drive their decisions, we believe that pollsters will continue to be just as accurate in the years ahead.