George H. Gallup died over 30 years ago, but during his lifetime came to be known as one of the founding forces in public opinion research and polling. Taking the temperature of the American public was central to the Gallup organization, as evidenced by George Gallup’s book, “The Pulse of Democracy.”
Gallup polls often probed the public’s position towards fear of crime and cultural or demographic changes. But the organization is perhaps most strongly connected to political polling. And no matter whether you are Democrat, Republican, or somewhere in between, the Presidential race as reflected in the polls has been an attention-getter for generations.
The Gallup organization itself talked about the pluses of pre-election polls back in 2004:
…well-done, scientific polls are a plus for society because they — at the very least — provide accurate information about what one’s fellow citizens are thinking, rather than just supposition and conjecture.
No Gallup Polls for the 2016 Election?
But for this 2016 election cycle, Gallup’s enthusiasm has waned. In fact, Gallup isn’t polling for the 2016 Presidential election at all. What happened?
Looking at the 2007/2008 election cycle, Gallup was updating primary standings for both parties on a more than once-per-month cycle. From Iowa through the rest of the early primary states, Gallup created a daily tracking poll. And Gallup nailed the prediction for the outcome of the Obama/McCain contest—as it had for the majority of Presidential races.
Gallup was looking good—and accurate—in 2008.
Fast forward to 2012.
Many national pollsters underestimated how Barack Obama would ultimately show in the general election. But Gallup, being the most visible and well known polling company, took the brunt of the public castigation, including a very public memo from the Obama campaign that questioned the accuracy of the Gallup surveys.
Gallup Predicted Romney Win in 2012
The memo concerned a poll Gallup had released in mid-October 2012, showing Obama and Mitt Romney tied in the swing states. And Gallup’s final survey results indicated Romney likely finishing over Obama by 1 full point. If this prediction had become reality, it would have been a different story. But the final results were disastrous for Gallup: their prediction was 4.9 points off–Obama won by 3.9 points overall.
Gallup not only missed the degree of difference — but also picked the wrong winner.
Afterwards, Gallup invested in a lengthy and expensive effort to retool its methodology, as discussed in this internal report. Voter screening questions were cited as one part of the survey that likely created bias, though Gallup did not have a clear idea of exactly what would need to change to rectify the problems. Christopher Wlezien, at the time a Temple University professor who consulted on the retooling effort, said “We don’t have a silver bullet” for explaining what part or parts of the likely-voter screen led to misrepresentation of the overall electorate.”
But significant changes were indeed found to be needed in the way questions were asked that caused Gallup to weight their surveys towards more whites.
Blame was also placed on Gallup’s method of gathering the poll responses: the sample roster relied heavily landline phone users, which tended to skew older and more Republican, as opposed to those who use cellular telephones as their main phone.
Cell Phones Affect Polling
Cell phones represent a unique challenge for pollsters. A cell phone is not tied to an address—many cell phone account holders have an area code from a different city or state from where they actually live. Cell phone numbers aren’t listed in the white pages. And cell phones typically have call-screening and blocking features. All of that adds up to more control by the user, and more privacy for them as well.
Americans may just not want to be contacted by people they don’t know; the Federal Communications Commission says that they receive more complaints about unwanted phone calls than any other subject. And legislators have responded: the national “No Call Registry” allows consumers to register their phone numbers and opt-out of telemarketing calls. Charities, politicians, and pollsters are excluded from the registry, but a new federal law passed to protect consumers from overly aggressive debt collectors and telemarketers also has language that specifically bans pollsters from using an automated system to get opinions.
Today’s potential voters are more mobile, and are simply opting out of being contacted at all more and more often.
“The science of public surveying is in something of a crisis right now,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Nowadays, people are less likely than ever to want to give their private opinions to a pollster, and this is impacting the polling process and accuracy in extremely dramatic ways.
In the same article, Roger Tourangeau, survey methodologist and VP at the research firm Westat, said, “I used to remember when survey conductors were celebrities… George Gallup… had columns in the newspaper and would regularly appear on national TV.”
“Everyone in the industry is worried about the falling response rate,” said Tourangeau. “It’s not just an American problem. It’s a worldwide problem.”
Tourangeau cited the technology factor as the probable culprit in Israeli polls that indicated Benjamin Netanyahu was a potential loser just days before the parliamentary election. Instead of the predicted loss, Netanyahu won another term—by a landslide.
Celinda Lake, a pollster, political consultant, and president of Lake Research Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm, says polling has seen “…kind of a steady decline. It’s getting harder to reach people. It’s also harder to get them to cooperate.” And that means polling in America will continue to take more time, more effort—and more money—than it did in the past: all challenges to getting the easily-digested snapshots of the mind of the American public.
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