The dirty little secret pollsters need to own up to

David Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants and a 2020 fellow at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for the Political Future.

There’s a dirty little secret that we pollsters need to own up to: People don’t talk to us anymore, and it’s making polling less reliable.

When I first undertook telephone polling in the early 1980s, I could start with a cluster of five demographically similar voters — say, Republican moms in their 40s in a Midwestern suburb — and expect to complete at least one interview from that group of five. I’d build a sample of 500 different clusters of five voters per cluster, or 2,500 voters total. From that number, I could be reasonably assured that 500 people would talk to us. The 500 clusters were designed to represent a diverse cross-section of the electorate.

As the years drifted by, it took more and more voters per cluster for us to get a single voter to agree to an interview. Between 1984 and 1989, when caller ID was rolled out, more voters began to ignore our calls. The advent of answering machines and then voicemail further reduced responses. Voters screen their calls more aggressively, so cooperation with pollsters has steadily declined year-by-year. Whereas once I could extract one complete interview from five voters, it can now take calls to as many as 100 voters to complete a single interview, even more in some segments of the electorate.

And here’s the killer detail: That single cooperative soul who speaks with an interviewer cannot possibly hold the same opinions as the 99 other voters who refused.

Opinion | The dirty little secret pollsters need to own up to

David Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants and a 2020 fellow at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for the Political Future. There’s a dirty little secret that we pollsters need to own up to: People don’t talk to us anymore, and it’s making polling less reliable.

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