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The future of political polling in the age of social media

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Woman on smartphone, laptop
A woman uses her smartphone in a Starbucks in Silver Spring, Md, on May 9, 2012.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

As voters drop their landline telephones and express their opinions via social media outlets, political polling is also evolving to reach people.

A developing model for measuring public opinion is through social media streams. Philip Resnik, linguistics professor with a joint appointment at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is looking at ways to capture those views based on what people post online.

"There's a difference between asking people what they think and looking at what they're talking about," he said on The Daily Circuit Monday. "Increasingly people are starting to move from landlines to cell phones to online conversations. The water cooler conversations people used to have are now increasingly taking place online. This enables you to get to a finer grain sense of what people are talking about... There's opportunity for deeper insight if you can tap into this source of information."

Today, half of all 25- to 30-year-olds don't have standard telephone lines. The traditional polling methods were developed in the 1960s and 70s when more than 95 percent of American had landlines. Even those Americans who have landlines today are less likely to pick up due to the prevalence of call screening.

Telephone polling "works if everybody has a chance of being selected and has a known chance of being selected," said Joe Lenski, Edison Research co-founder and executive vice president, on The Daily Circuit. "The real issue is making sure everyone is available to be called."

Pollsters are exempt from the "Do Not Call" registry laws, but in order to call cell phones, they have to hand dial the numbers. The polling companies also can't assume a respondent's location based on an area code since many people keep their original cell phone number when they move.

One of the biggest hurtles for pollsters is ensuring that the people not answering polls don't have vastly different opinions from the people they do reach. A typical national poll has about 1,000 respondents, but sometimes just a 20 percent response rate. Without reaching people on cell phones, many polls are leaving out a population that is likely younger, more mobile and includes a higher percentage of minorities.

"We're constantly worried about the potential bias that comes out from non-response and it's hard to provide any guarantees," said Kirby Goidel, professor of political science and mass communication at Louisiana State University.

Callers and participants in the Facebook discussion questioned the usefulness of polls today.

"I think traditional polls are meaningless now," said Wendy Hudson on Facebook. "They are certainly non-scientific. Most people have caller ID, and if they are anything like me, they don't pick up if they don't recognize the number. This means you are only polling the lonely, the bored, the poor and the non-technical."

Rob Daves, a public opinion research consultant and member of adjunct faculty at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, called into the show. He said polling still has an important place in the media, particularly polls done by non-partisan firms.

"This type of polling is important to citizens in their election decisions because think about what politicians use polls for," he said. "They use it to guide messages, but they also selectively release results when it helps them or when it hurts their opponent... These third party, including media polls, who try the best they can to be accurate gives the average citizen another barometer of what's going on out there."