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Hung Up on Land Lines, Pollsters Miss Crucial Cell Phone Culture

Imagine an election season where the media doesn't inundate us with the latest poll numbers from its pool of "likely voters." Even better, imagine pollsters actually using all the 21st century technology at their fingertips to reach a more inclusive pool of "likely voters."

Yes, the dirty little secret of public opinion polling is that a huge sector of the American public - the cell phone culture - is ignored. As the news media blare the latest conflicting headlines declaring a 3-, 6- or 8-point lead for one candidate or the other, consider that all those Americans who communicate primarily via cell phone are not part of the equation.

Who does that exclude? Primarily young professionals and college students. According to Cellular One, more than 80 percent of college students use cell phones. It's a mobile time of life for teen-agers and 20-somethings. As they increasingly wed themselves to the latest wireless technology, they have little use for a land line. Yet pollsters still conduct business the old-fashioned way, meaning they're more likely to reach older Americans who aren't so hot on technology, and whose political views, while important, hardly constitute a diverse outlook.

If public opinion polling is to remain part of the political landscape - and it surely is - the major polling organizations need to update their methods.

Yes, but, the argument goes, college students are the least likely to turn out to vote. What conventional wisdom ignores, though, is the fact that this generation of new voters was socialized in a far different climate than the Generation X-ers who came before. For the X set - now in their 30s and presumably settling into career plans and family life - voting was a nice, quaint idea, but hardly crucial to their livelihoods or the future of the country. They grew up in a period of unprecedented prosperity, with a stronger-than-ever economy and no looming wars to trouble them. Lingering cynicism from past generations socialized during Vietnam and Watergate convinced Gen X-ers it doesn't really matter who is president, and even if it did, whoever enters the office comes out corrupt.

This year's first-time voter was between the ages of 14 and 17 in 2000, when they learned a crucial lesson from the last presidential election: their civics teachers' corny maxim that "every vote counts" is really true. This year's newbies learned that hundreds, not thousands, of votes might be all that separates a president from an also-ran.

Couple that with some of the most troubled times the U.S. has ever experienced, and we've got a whole new batch of "likely voters" to deal with.

Pollsters, although late to the game, are apparently starting to worry about locking out the cell phone culture. In a recent Wired magazine article, Gallup pollster Steve Hanway noted, "You want to include every member of the population as having a chance to be in your poll. But if, as a result of some design decision, you can't include everybody in your poll, that's going to be a concern." In the same story, Zogby International's John Zogby predicts that in five years, political polling will exclude as many as 25 to 33 percent of 18-to-40-year-olds who will have gone cell-phone-only.

Changes can't come soon enough if pollsters want to avoid another 1936. That year, George Gallup Sr. emerged as the father of modern polling when he used a random sample of 5,000 citizens and predicted, startlingly, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would win re-election over Republican challenger Alf Landon. In contrast to Gallup's science, the popular magazine Literary Digest, overconfident from its accurate predictions in the last two presidential elections, augmented its mailing list with hundreds of thousands of names compiled from automobile registrations and telephone directories - luxuries in the midst of the Great Depression - and predicted a 57-to-43 percent Landon victory over Roosevelt. Gallup reached a diverse population that the Literary Digest missed completely. Suffice to say that many were shocked when FDR took nearly 61 percent of the vote.

If public opinion polling is to remain part of the political landscape - and it surely is - the major polling organizations need to update their methods. The news media can help. Major news organizations still rely on and breathlessly report the latest numbers from Gallup and Zogby, despite the lack of technological advancement in their methods. While companies such as Harris Interactive have developed scientific Internet sampling techniques, these polls are largely frowned upon by major news organizations, which believe web polls exclude a significant portion of the population - yet they fail to see how exclusive reliance on land-locked phone users also skew results.

Americans love polls - we love quoting them when they support our candidate, and trashing them when they don't. Polls have great power to affect a candidate's fund-raising efforts and turnout at the election booth. But if they are to remain a legitimate election season tool, it's crucial for pollsters to reach out and touch someone via 21st century technology. In the meantime, we should all take the latest horserace reporting of who's ahead, who's behind, and who's coming up the back stretch with a grain of salt - if not the entire shaker.

Dennis Plane is an assistant professor of politics at Juniata College.