Americans Are Rebelling Against Phone Surveys

Carl Bialik reports on the state of the state in political polling:

Fifteen pollsters told us their response rates for election polls this year and in 2012. The average response rate this year is 11.8 percent — down 1.9 percentage points from 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but when fewer than one in seven people responded to polls in 2012, there wasn’t much room to drop. It’s a decline of 14 percent, and it’s consistent across pollsters — 12 of the 15 reported a decline, and no one reported an increase.

These results are consistent with what pollsters have reported for years: that people are harder to reach by phone, and are less likely to want to talk to strangers when they are reached. Here, the pollsters show just how quickly response rates have fallen in only two years.

I assume the problem here is twofold. First, there are too many polls. A few decades ago it might have seemed like a big deal to get a call from a Gallup pollster. Sort of like being a Nielsen family. Today it’s not. Polls are now conducted so frequently, and the public has become so generally media savvy, that it’s just sort of a nuisance.

More generally, there are just too many spam phone calls. The Do Not Call Registry was a great idea, but there are (a) too many loopholes, including for pollsters, and (b) too many spammers who don’t give a damn. When the registry first went on line, my level of spam phone calls dropped dramatically. Since then, however, it’s gradually increased and is now nearly as bad as it ever was. I won’t even pick up the phone anymore if Caller ID suggests it’s a commercial call of some variety. Nor is there much likelihood that this situation is going to improve as long as the spammers are smart enough not to call Chuck Schumer’s cell phone.

So perhaps polling is going to end up being a victim of its own success. During election years I get two or three calls a month from pollsters, which is pretty remarkable if I’m anything close to average. It means pollsters are making something like 100 million or more calls per month across the country. Is that possible? It hardly seems like it. Maybe I’m an outlier. But one way or another, it’s a big number, and it’s no wonder that people are hanging up on them in droves.