The impending death of the telephone poll comes just as the 2020 presidential election is approaching — and without enough time for a tested and trusted alternative to replace it. That raises serious concerns about the reliability of polling results heading into the election, other survey researchers told POLITICO on the sidelines of their conference, with scrutiny of the industry set to be heavier than ever after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016.
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. Despite enjoying a largely successful 2018 election, pollsters are furiously experimenting to fill the void left by the slow failure of the telephone poll, looking at everything from internet-based solutions to snail mail.
But the possibility of another polling miss in the 2020 presidential race looms, and the next election could present new, unforeseen challenges that polls may struggle to address as they test new methodologies under exacting scrutiny. Both parties are framing the race as an existential contest over the country’s future. Voter engagement is at record highs for this stage of the election cycle. And pollsters are already facing blame for recent election surprises in Israel and Australia.
Steve Koczela, who conducts phone polls in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for Boston’s NPR affiliate, described 2020 as a year “full of promise and peril” as the polling industry transitions from phones to something else.
“It doesn’t seem live phone polling is going away anytime soon, but its place as the clear gold standard is a thing of the past,” Koczela said.
But, for now, most of those other methods are still in development, pollsters at the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s annual meeting said.
Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, is releasing phone surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire — while, at the same time, conducting as-yet-unreleased experiments with web surveys in which he sends invitations over email. And he says he isn’t alone in testing new methods.
“What I was really surprised at [the conference] this year are the number of traditional pollsters like myself who have, independently of one another, been starting to dip our toes in that pool,” Murray said. “So, right now, while I’m releasing my telephone polls in the early states, I’m also simultaneously conducting online polls using a list sample where I can validate the voters using an email address. And I’m looking to see how that holds up against the telephone survey.”