MATTHEW MORIARTY: To Pollsters, We Cell-Phoners Don't Exist
I'm almost 30 years old, and John Zogby has never called me.
I've voted in three presidential elections. I've known who I'm voting for in this one for months. Doesn't Zogby care about my political opinion? Doesn't he, or any other pollster for that matter, care about my views on Iraq, the economy, lipstick and pigs?
My guess is that he probably does, but he just can't reach me, or anyone like me. See, I haven't had a landline phone since 2001.
That's when I got my first cell phone. I've been unable to live without one since. But I find it quite easy to live without a home phone and the constant ringing of telemarketers.
For various reasons, pollsters don't call cell phones and are leaving out a huge chunk of the population. According to a Pew Research Center survey from July, 14.5 percent of the adult population is exactly like me. Well, kinda like me. Well, we have one thing in common: We use only a cell phone.
Out of a population of just over 301 million, that's more than 43 million people who will never be asked who they plan to vote for or what issues are important to them.
More than 22 percent of adults (22.3 percent, to be exact) live in homes with landlines but say that they receive all or most of their calls on their cell phones. My buddy Nate is one of those. He said he never answers the landline unless it's a number he recognizes, like the Sheriff's Department or Pure Gold.
Just kidding, Nate.
That 22 percent equals about 67 million -- or a little bit more than one in five -- Americans who are pretty much never included in political polls.
Well, for one thing, polling cell phone users is hard. Pollsters aren't allowed to use automatic dialers to reach cell phones. Each number has to be physically punched in by a person. Can you imagine? In this day and age.
There are other problems. For one, pollsters have no idea where they are reaching cell phone users. What if they call someone who answers while driving and proceeds to talk his or her way right into a ditch? Is the polling company liable?
What if a pollster reaches me while I'm in a public place? Would I give honest answers? I would. But, I'm crazy. Some people are fiercely protective of their political views and wouldn't want to be overheard. They're only willing to be honest in the safety of their own living rooms.
So data gathered from cell phone users might be less reliable. It's also less useful. When a pollster reaches someone on his or her home phone, the area code tells him geographically where the person is. If you want to know who's winning North Carolina in November, you call registered voters in North Carolina.
How do you find out how North Carolina cell phone users are voting? You can call North Carolina area codes, but you have no assurance that those people live in North Carolina. One of my best friends is a doctor in Boston. He has a 919 number, but I don't think anyone would call Massachusetts a swing state -- unless it's a different definition of "swing."
I have another good friend who lives here but got a Las Vegas cell phone number just because he thought it was cool.
The other problem is that if a pollster did call me on my cell phone, I'd either hang up immediately or stay on just long enough to say something I'd have to apologize to Jesus for.
Oh, who am I kidding? I never answer numbers I don't recognize anyway.
Cell-only people are statistically likely to be younger and poorer, more liberal and more likely to be a minority than the general population. They also are less likely to vote.
Studies, like the Pew one I mention above, don't seem to find much political variation between cell-only users and people in the same age group who do have landlines. So as long as enough landline users are being reached to provide a good sample, the results of the poll are still valid.
But if there was ever a race that threatens to invalidate polls that neglect cell phones, this is it. I mean, one candidate revealed his pick for vice president by a mass 3 a.m. text message. The other communicates best via Morse code tapped out with a rusty spoon on a drain pipe.
In a race this close, my 43 million friends and I continue to shun landlines, guarding our political views closer than our PIN numbers. Whoever gets us just might be the next president.
Talk about a November surprise.
Matthew Moriarty is a staff writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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