I'm A Phone Pollster This Election: 5 Realities
The American election campaign season has evolved into a near-interminable purgatory from which the only escape is sweet, sweet death, or possibly Canada. With huge amounts of both money and time on the line, candidates rely on polling more than ever before. We talked to Greg, a research survey pollster in Akron, and Ron, an employee of a partisan and consumer polling firm, about what it's like to keep your finger on the pulse of the nation. They told us ...
Pollsters Can Exploit Bias And Employ Some Dirty Tricks
In theory, there is no right or wrong answer to a poll question, even if there clearly is an objectively correct response, like which Starburst flavor is the best (red). But some pollsters will try to bully you into the "right" answer anyway.
"Earlier this year, we were surveying about the primaries, and we had Trump supporters working here ... but we had to fire two of them," Greg recalls. One of them "actively tried to get those he was surveying to switch their answers to Trump or toward the right," while another "told a respondent, 'No, Trump didn't mean that. He doesn't believe that.'" When confronted, the employee argued, "'I can't not say anything when people get their facts wrong.'" As with many other Trump supporters, apparently no one ever told this person that sometimes it's okay to not talk.
To be fair, they're only doing what they see Daddy do all the time.
Greg remembers one Democratic employee who, during a heated local race, "would word some of the questions in a way to make them seem better than the Republican options. It wasn't blatant, either. He would do it in a tone of voice -- a little lighter and warmer for Democrat candidates and darker and more monotone for Republicans. We asked about how positively or negatively they were viewed too, and he added details not in the script. One question was on the candidate's name, and he worded it like, 'Which name sounds more like a governor's? Is it the esteemed or the other ?'"
"Would you vote for Maybe Hitler, or Definitely Not Hitler?"
That kind of chicanery, whether Trump-blatant or Democrat-manipulative, has no place in legit polling practices. And yet it is, in fact, the entire point of many polls. Called "push polling," these operations maintain only the thinnest veneer of objectivity, while their real purpose is to influence opinion, not record it. It has a long history in politics, right up through this year's primaries, when South Carolina Republicans received an automated polling call that berated them if they chose anyone besides Ted Cruz. Who could possibly be behind such a thing? It seems pretty obvious ... Someone trying to make Cruz look bad! At least, that's what Cruz himself said, and he has such a trustworthy face.
"I can assure you that staffers are not hanging interns on meat hooks for the feast of the Elder Things behind this door. That's a promise. #TrusTED."
According to Ron, push pollers are about as seedy as they sound. And not only has he never done what they do, but his company also wants nothing to do with anyone who does. "They would rent a room in a hotel and hire a bunch of temp employees to make calls with cheap cell phones," he says. "They don't need to match quotas, or store or analyze data, so they don't need the expensive hardware and software or staff training a real polling company needs."
A push poll may be mostly indistinguishable from a legitimate poll, but there are a few tells. "A push poll will typically be done in the days immediately prior to an election and have no demographic questions," Ron explains. "The poll will then go on to ask you questions that make one side look good and the other side look bad. The may not even be recording your answers, because they are useless."
Maybe the respondent doesn't believe Hillary personally shot four dozen people now, but it's in their head.
Basically, listen for someone who sounds like they're making jerk-off motions while you talk instead of diligently typing your answers.
Phone Polls Are Technological Dinosaurs
If the only person who's ever called to yell at you about politics is your grandpa, it may be because you're part of nearly half of the population that no longer has a landline. Obviously, ignoring the iPhone-carrying masses makes for much less accurate forecasts. Remember Bernie Sanders' "shocking" win in Michigan? That wouldn't have been a surprise had pollsters used a cellular/landline mix. Why not simply use the internet? Then you're missing a different side: the 13 percent of the population that doesn't cotton to these newfangled innertubes.
"This thing is for calculators and dying from dysentery, not for presidents and porn!"
There are two ways pollsters attempt to solve this problem. The first is building statistical models. For example, let's say they talk to 1,000 old white folks, a handful of people from other races, and if the probability gods really smile upon them, one or two college students visiting their parents ("the Holy Grail for landline-only surveys," Greg calls it). In that case, the data is "weighted" -- some people's answers count for more than others. This is why we wind up with polls showing wildly different results during the same time period. It all depends on the company's specific methodology, which largely depends on the idea that everyone in a given demographic group is a scary Village Of The Damned hive mind.
"The three 20-year-olds polled really seem to be behind this Harambe guy."
They might also use a quota system, which requires pollsters to keep calling until they get every demographic. That's a special circle of Hell -- it can take Greg months to meet his quota on the 18-30 demographic. He'll talk to a whole lot of middle-aged white mothers on the way, but there's an easy fix to prevent them from skewing polls: Once they've gotten enough of the "still not over Kevin Sorbo" group, pollsters stop entering in their responses.
We conducted our own little poll to find out how middle-aged white mothers feel about that, and they overwhelmingly stated that they "just like having someone to talk to." Eighty-two percent further amended, "You don't call enough. What are you, a rock star or something? You can't call?"
Poll Results Are Largely Determined By The Client
A poll client breaks up age groups in ways that make sense to them. For example, they might contact the polling firm and ask for 100 male and 100 female respondents in each category -- 18-to-29-year-olds, 30-to-39-year-olds, etc., up to the age of 60 and above. That shows a startling ignorance about how demographics actually work.
"Statistically, we should be asking for more people in their 20s, 50s, and 60s, since they are more of the population," Greg says. "But we don't, because those are nice round numbers, and it's easy to do the math." This flawed logic is known as "age distribution inflation," and it's downright deceptive.
Don't sleep on the underrepresented grade-schoolers who are tired of your shit.
Then there's an approach we call "any port in a storm": "The easiest surveys were those that asked to get 1,000 people, regardless of age or gender," Greg says. "We still recorded who they were, but those would have the final results of mostly older people. The easiest one ever only had a few questions, and they were all about voting. They were 'Are you planning to vote?' 'Did you vote by mail?' and 'Why did (or didn't) you vote?' Surveys usually take several days to finish, but we got that one done in eight hours. I'll let you decide if that's a good or bad thing."
We'll go with "good," because it was the first option and we're eager to call it a day.
Here's How We Get Your Number
Greg gets a randomized list of landline numbers that his company draws from an online phone book, which is fairly standard practice. To hit on the occasional unlisted line, he may be given numbers with the last two digits randomly generated. This tends to irritate people on the Do Not Call list. Pollsters are exempt, baby.
"Yeah yeah, sure, Hillary for Prison, whatever. Now do you want breadsticks or not?"
Ron's organization does things a little differently. Many of their clients are running for office, so they can rent access to political party and affiliated group databases -- information that has given Democrats a considerable edge in the past couple of elections.
"Since campaigns are already paying for access to these databases with phone numbers of all their voters, they usually just send us the numbers they have already paid for, rather than pay for a company to provide us with random numbers, as was common in the past," Ron says.
"This guy threatened the last two pollsters with Saw torture. But we feel the third time's the charm."
It's a damn disgrace, those cheap politicians running mom-and-pop random number generators out of business. Be sure to tell them what you think about it when they don't call you.
Politicians Don't Want Your Opinion -- They Want To Sell You Theirs
Greg does occasionally get valuable political insight. He's found out about a few surprise protests, and once got the tipoff that a historically all-Republican neighborhood was suddenly voting Democrat. That's the kind of scuttlebutt political strategists salivate over, but for Greg, it's good water cooler conversation, and that's about it. There's no comments section in the survey form he fills out, let alone a field for "breaking news you can use" to be passed up the chain to candidates and party leaders.
"I expected there to be more policy research, and I don't do much of that," Ron says. Instead, it's more a matter of message testing. "It's more 'How do we convince people to agree with the policy we've already decided to push?' rather than politicians trying to figure out what the policy should be. We're checking the wording."
"OK, 'feminazi cuck terrorist' didn't work. Let's try 'insider.'"
Of course, that's assuming you can get people to respond to your questions at all. Greg says it's easiest around the primaries, when his research group enjoys a response rate of around 13 percent. In general, it hovers between 7 and 9 percent. And you have to be very careful to even get that low level of interaction. Greg has been instructed to never use the words "poll" or "Obama." Instead, he says "survey" or "president."
Because for some, the only way they can talk civilly about President Obama is if they're never reminded that Obama is president.
If it helps, we have a few more suggestions. Instead of "politics," say "interstate death battle." Instead of "voters," say "sexy beasts." And instead of "hello," say "ARE YOU READY TO RUMBLE?!"
Evan V. Symon is a Personal Experience team interviewer, writer, and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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