Tom Eiland

As Telephone Surveys Fade, Online Research Remains an Option

Fewer Americans are willing to answer their phones to participate in telephone public opinion surveys, which poses a big problem for political operatives who use results to fashion campaign strategies. As pollsters scramble for alternatives, online research stands out as a viable and valuable option.

Fewer Americans are willing to answer their phones to participate in telephone public opinion surveys, which poses a big problem for political operatives who use results to fashion campaign strategies. As pollsters scramble for alternatives, online research stands out as a viable and valuable option.

Telephone surveys have been the gold standard for public opinion polling for decades. That’s about to change.

“Fewer Americans than ever are willing to pick up the phone and talk to pollsters, sending costs skyrocketing to roughly double what they were four years ago,” writes Steven Shepard on Politico.

Pollster Scott Keeter told fellow pollsters recently that telephone surveys are in “wheezing condition” and efforts to find a suitable replacement are like “a great party on the deck of the Titanic.”

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These sober assessments about the ill health of public opinion polling come on the eve of the 2020 presidential election and have many political operatives scrambling to find sources of reliable information on which to base campaign strategies. 

The slow fade of telephone surveys isn’t really news. CFM’s resident researcher, Tom Eiland, explains, “Challenges with phone surveys started with the use of caller ID and voice mail, then Do Not Call lists and really accelerated with the use of cell phones and smartphones.”  

“Telephone surveys have been a great tool that produced high-confidence findings when representative samples were achieved,” Eiland says. “However, telephone use has gone digital and polling has to adjust to that reality.”

Eiland noted CFM’s research sample designs adapted as respondent behavior changed. 

For general population and voter surveys, Eiland recommends using multi-modal sample designs. “This entails using a combination of telephone interviews and online web-based surveys,” he explained. Telephone numbers and email addresses are acquired from trusted third-party vendors to make the combined sample random.

“The trick,” Eiland said, “is to use sample quotas for demographic characteristics, such as age, gender and area, to ensure survey participants are representative of the community.”

 

Presidential Approval Follows Similar Trends

A recent article by Pew Research demonstrates changes in presidential approval ratings from Eisenhower through today.

A recent article by Pew Research demonstrates changes in presidential approval ratings from Eisenhower through today.

Pew Research just released an overview of presidential job approval ratings from Eisenhower to Obama based on research conducted by Pew and Gallup from 1952 to 2015.

There were a few things that struck me as interesting in the data included in Pew Research’s article, For Presidents Day, a look at presidential job approval ratings from Ike to Obama.

  1. Approval ratings by party for each president changed in a similar fashion. Regardless of president or party, approval ratings went up and down at about the same rate and time for all 11 presidents.
  2. Approval ratings for nine of 11 presidents declined as their term in office drew to a close. The only exceptions were Carter and Reagan.
  3. Overall high and low approval ratings for Reagan and Obama are similar. Reagan’s high approval was 68 percent and low 35 percent compared to Obama’s high of 64 percent and low of 41 percent.
  4. The largest gap between high and low ratings were for the two Bushes, net 60 for George and net 64 for George W. Conversely, the smallest change from high to low were for Obama, net 23, and Kennedy, net 26.
  5. The fond memories of the Camelot Years of the Kennedy administration may be an illusion. Kennedy’s approval ratings were declining significantly during the months immediately prior to his assassination.

When released, Presidential approval ratings are interesting tidbits for coffee shops and cocktail parties. But a closer look at trends and comparisons yields surprising and unexpected results. You find substantive topics such as war, the economy, domestic strife, international relations and perhaps the favorite topic of all, scandal.

Read the Sample Before the Results

Pew Research Center released new polling data showing GOP challenger Mitt Romney easing ahead of President Barack Obama among likely voters. There is little doubt Romney got a bump from his strong presidential debate performance, but he may have gotten an even bigger boost in the poll because of who was interviewed.

Chris Cillizza, who writes "The Fix" column in The Washington Post, noted that the latest Pew poll sample included 36 percent Republicans, 31 percent Democrats and 30 percent independents. No one knows for sure what the actual split will be in the election. However, Cillizza noted Pew's September presidential poll had a sharply different split — 29 percent Republican, 39 percent Democrat and 30 percent independent.

There may have been more than Romney momentum reflected in the two polls, he suggested.

In fact, samples are a critical factor in determining the accuracy and validity of polling results.

"If your sample doesn't reflect your target audience, then the results may be skewed," explains CFM Partner Tom Eiland.

Amid a hotly contested presidential election, polling results could boost one man's momentum and redirect the other's strategy based on faulty conclusions from a skewed sample.

Some poll results may be unquestionably true despite the sample. For example, the latest Pew poll shows two thirds of all registered voters say Romney won the debate. The percentage was even higher among independents, who many observers believe hold the key to winning the presidential election. The samples for independents were identical in both recent Pew polls.

There is a debate among public opinion research professionals over what the split will actually be among Democrats, Republicans and independents in the 2012 general election. GOP pollsters challenge whether Democratic turnout will be as high this year as it was in 2008, when Obama was elected. Democrats cite the registration of many younger people and Latinos, but there is no guarantee they actually will cast ballots.

Research in Action

Research with a purpose can inform decision-making. By providing insight toward an objective, research becomes more than a series of statistical facts.

No research technique provides a perfect crystal ball into the future. But actionable research points to a clear direction for marketing outreach, customer satisfaction or messaging.

Sometimes research gets a bad reputation because it yields findings of marginal value to the task at hand. That can occur when researchers aren't plugged into the uses of their survey work. Or it can happen when researchers don't tailor their samples to reflect the audience you want to reach.

Making research useful doesn't mean writing questions or soliciting comments for a predetermined outcome. That's not really research. Unbiased, straightforward questions that test single concepts or messages may produce findings you don't like, but need to know. What value is there to undertake a major marketing campaign based on an untested or untrue premise?