One big winner in the aftermath of the 2012 election will likely be political polling operations. In coming elections, news organizations might be tempted to rely on them more, and try to start up their own, but that could be a heavy lift.
Political junkies -- democrats and republicans alike -- have been wowed by poll-crunchers like Nate Silver of the New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog, who got the election so nearly right. Mark Blumenthal co-founded and now runs the Pollster operation at the Huffington Post, which also had a stellar prediction record this election season.
“We don’t actually do any surveys,” says Blumenthal. “We collect them, aggregate the surveys that other people do, and put them into a polling model -- basically, a complicated average.”
It’s a complicated project, with highly trained analysts using lots of fancy math. But, says Blumenthal, “creating a polling firm where you actually go out and do the work is much harder and more expensive.”
It can cost upwards of $20,000 to conduct a single statewide poll, says David Redlawsk at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center, which conducts polls in New Jersey. A poll like that will reach approximately 900 respondents, using a proper statistically significant scientific sample, with surveyors conducting live interviews over the phone. And Redlawsk can tap students to do some of the work.
Media organizations might have even higher costs if they tried to do polling on their own. That's one reason some big newspapers have dropped their polling operations in recent years, while others have partnered with TV networks. Universities and private market research firms use political polls as loss-leaders to gain PR exposure and drum up paying clients.
There has been a steady increase in political polling in American elections. Mark Blumenthal of Pollster and the Huffington Post says back in 1980, only five or six polls were done in the last week before the election. This year, his staff was crunching one hundred or more state and national polls in the final days.
Blumenthal says in the past decade, there has been a proliferation of voluntary opt-in online polls and robo-call polls. Eric Plutzer at Penn State University’s Survey Research Center says these polls suffer from unscientific sampling and poor response rates.
“The cost of entry to do crappy polling is very low,” says Plutzer. “Non-scientific voluntary internet polls are very inexpensive.”
But news organizations know polls -- even not very reliable ones -- can attract lots of eyeballs and advertising to media sites.