Do Polls Undercount Obama Supporters?

Image Source/ Getty Images
Image Source/ Getty Images

(The Root) — In the weeks before an election, much of the media coverage becomes a numbers game, obsessively chronicling which candidate is in the lead in which states and with which voter blocs, according to the polls. But one question that media and consumers of media rarely ask is, how do we know the polls we are reporting and consuming are accurate? Increasingly it appears that traditional polls may be missing wide swaths of specific voter demographics altogether, particularly younger voters of color.


Polling data play a significant role in elections, particularly in the Internet age. Today a polling firm can release new data online that can reach millions within an hour. The impact can be virtually instantaneous and far-reaching. For example, four years ago then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had one of her most public clashes with John McCain's campaign staffers after she publicly criticized the campaign's decision to stop campaigning in the state of Michigan, thereby surrendering the potential swing state to then-Sen. Barack Obama's campaign a month before Election Day.

The campaign's reason? Polls had begun to show Obama with a lead, so the decision was made by the McCain team to start investing the resources being poured into Michigan into more viable states. (Recent polls indicate that history may repeat itself, with Mitt Romney now also trailing Obama in Michigan, the state in which the GOP presidential candidate was born.)

While advancements in technology may have helped increase the reach and influence of polling, so far technology has not been fully utilized to ensure the accuracy of polling, which still relies heavily on lists of landline telephone numbers to reach people. As of 2011, 83 percent of American adults owned a cellphone, and the numbers of Americans using one as their primary form of communication is growing rapidly. Between 2007 and 2010 the number of American homes without a telephone land line doubled, to 26.6 percent. Now a full third of U.S. households are cellphone-only.

Among young people the numbers are more pronounced. More than half of adults ages 25 to 29 now live in wireless-phone-only households, according to an FCC report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics referred to a growing number of young people as "cord-never-getters," meaning they get a cellphone and that becomes their primary phone for life, so they never bother getting a landline even when they move out of Mom and Dad's house.

Despite the explosive growth of cellphones as the primary form of communication for a number of Americans, political polls are still largely conducted via landlines. The reason is largely cost, according to David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, one of the most quoted political-polling institutions in the country. Polling firms purchase lists of phone numbers in order to reach respondents. Cellphone-number lists are significantly more expensive than lists of landline phone numbers — between double and triple the cost.

Additionally, cellphone polling is more labor-intensive because, for example, if you are trying to conduct a poll of likely voters in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown — something Suffolk recently did — cellphone-number lists will include a lot of young people who lived in Massachusetts for college but have moved on. This means pollsters have to keep calling cellphone lists until they reach enough people they can confirm live in the area relevant to the poll.


"The media wants the best of both worlds," Paleologos said in an interview with The Root, referring to media outlets that commission polls during campaign season. "They want the best data, but they want to keep costs manageable."

Low-income people and renters are more likely than others to live in a cellphone-only home. This includes a number of black Americans. Hispanics are also more likely than other populations to live in cellphone-only homes. And then there are young people, who are by far the largest demographic group living in cellphone-only homes.


These are the demographic groups that essentially put President Obama in the White House. African-American and Hispanic voter turnout increased by 2 million people in the 2008 election, an increase credited with making the difference in swing states like North Carolina, Nevada and others. Turnout among young voters was up by 2 percent over the 2004 election — an increase credited with making the difference in states like Indiana.

Four years later, there are countless news reports about the decrease in enthusiasm among young voters for the Obama campaign. Yet in the last four years, the number of cellphone-only-using young adults has increased significantly, but the world of polling has struggled to keep up with them. This means that polling data may not fully reflect the attitudes of young Americans this election, an election in which their votes could determine the outcome.


Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, noted that for the center's recent poll with USA Today, 35 percent of those contacted were on cellphones. The average number for the center and other institutions hovers somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent.

Paleologos wanted to make sure the poll accurately reflected the American population, including young people. As he explained, "You have to go where people are when you're a pollster, and young people are on cellphones." He quickly added, "But that's not where they're going to stay. There are always new forms of communication. We have to keep up with technology."


We won't know until Election Day whether the polls have failed to accurately do that this election cycle, particularly where young voters of color are concerned.

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter