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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.”