The mobile revolution has dramatically changed the way we live our lives. We take instant communication (and instant gratification) almost for granted today, as virtually everyone over the age of eight owns their own cellphone. But the rise of the cell phone has also led to the demise of the landline, and that is having a major impact on how pollsters do their job.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey undertaken in December 2013, 93% of Americans owned a cell phone, and more than 40% no longer had a landline and exclusively used a cell phone.
Public polls have traditionally called landlines
Until recently, nearly all public polls sampled the public by randomly dialing residential landlines, often based on location as determined by area code.
However, pollsters have been paying attention to the growing number of cell phone users, and most public telephone polls today include interviews on cellphones. According to the New York Times, the proportion of surveys aimed at mobile phones has grown as the proportion of households using cellphones has increased.
Issues with cell phones and surveys
Cell phones do, however, present special issues for pollsters. Landlines usually represent a household and are organized by area code/geography, whereas cellphones are most often owned by an individual and may move with that individual to a new city or state. These issues make conducting telephone surveys with cellphone users particularly challenging for pollsters.
Although most public polls are call at least some wireless phones, some still do not. The Federal Communications Commission regulations say a person rather than an auto-dialer must place calls to wireless phones, which significantly boosts the cost of surveys.
Statements from pollsters
“How many cellphones in a sample are enough? There’s no magic number,” explained Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. “But we find that the more cellphones we include, relative to landlines, the closer our samples match the known demographic composition of the adult population.”
“There is some sense to asking why we dial landlines at all when 93 percent of adults are covered by cellphones,” said Eran Ben-Porath, vice president for public opinion research at SSRS. “The reasoning here is twofold: 1. Landlines are still a bit cheaper to dial; 2. Some people still do not answer their cellphones regularly.”