Staggering Declines In Landline Usage

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR POLITICAL POLLING?

In December 2013 a report from the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that roughly two out of every five Americans – 39 percent – did not use a landline telephone.  Meanwhile another 18 percent of Americans said they had a landline but rarely used it.

Not surprisingly, age, race and income are prominent factors in determining who does – and doesn’t – use a landline.  Younger, non-white, low-income Americans are far more likely to only use a cell phone – distinctions pollsters continue to monitor closely as they seek to provide their clients and the public with accurate information about upcoming elections.

Of course the shift in landline usage is moving so fast it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accurately account for these variables.  This spring, GfK MRI’s Survey of the American Consumer revealed that 44 percent of Americans did not use landline telephones last year – up from 26 percent in 2010.  That’s a seventy percent jump in just four years.

Navigating this communications evolution in pursuit of accurate data – or even better, predictive analytics – is not easy.  Nor is it without controversy.

Earlier this month, a Survey USA poll showing GOP frontrunner Donald Trump leading all Democratic comers in a hypothetical general election was pilloried from the left.

“Supposedly SurveyUSA has a good track record … but this is ridiculous,” the liberal website Daily Kos noted, claiming the poll was over-reliant on landlines.

“Among cell phone users Trump gets walloped,” the website stated.

Of course Daily Kos neglected to mention that in 2012, Democratic researchers at Public Policy Polling had one of the most accurate records – despite the fact that they did not incorporate any cell phones in their surveys.  Gallup, on the other hand, had one of the least accurate records despite its pollsters using the most cell phones in their surveys.

What gives?  Well, the broader no-landline universe – projected to soar to 55 percent of the electorate in 2016 – consistently outpaces the no-landline voting universe by more than 20 percentage points.  In fact the percentage of cell-phone only voters is likely to clock in at around 33 percent next year, if current trends hold.  That means a poll which sampled cell phones at 55 percent would dramatically overstate the impact of younger, poorer, non-white voters.

To be clear: No credible poll ignores cell phones. And the growth of America’s cell phone only population shows no sign of slackening.  But pollsters must be careful not to overcompensate as they account for the impact of this seismic shift.

***