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Polling’s ‘spectacular disasters’

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Sep 2, 2015
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Former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina is expected to make the main GOP debate on September 16, after CNN tweaked its selection criteria. It blamed a lack of recent high-quality polls of the 17 Republicans running for president. That speaks to the disruption in the business of polling, where track records have taken a hit over the past few years.

Gallup predicted that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote by a percentage point in 2012 . In the 2014 midterm elections, some pollsters were surprised by the Republican takeover of Congress.

“Young adults, minorities and others stayed home,” says Robert Y. Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University. “In contrast, whites and older voters voted more than the Democrats.”

Turns out, young adults and minorities are the hardest voters for pollsters to reach. Millennials may only have a cell phone, and there can be language barriers with minorities.

“These people also may be less willing to be interviewed in general,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup. “Some don’t have phones.”

Cliff Zukin, who teaches public policy and political science at Rutgers, calls the pollsters’ misfires “spectacular disasters.”

He says they’re caused by two trends. First, a plummeting response rate. And second, the proliferation of cell phones. Pollsters aren’t allowed to mass dial them with computers; actual humans have to make every call. Zukin says that’s costly.

“It’s much more expensive — maybe three times more expensive than it was four years ago to do this stuff right now,” he says.

Zukin says that’s led pollsters to cut corners. Some are doing online polling instead. 

“These are guys who are trying new things, and they haven’t had good results, but they’re making a lot of money because it costs so little to do an internet poll,” he says.

But you get what you pay for. Zukin has some advice for voters in the 2016 presidential election: Take the polls with a huge grain of salt, because polling has become more art than science. 

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