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As Republicans Prep For Debate, Polling Questions Remain

The top 10 Republican presidential candidates will meet on one stage tonight for the first debate of the primary season. But those are not all of the candidates – just the ones who ranked highest in political polls.

But in the age of mobile phones and no more robocalls on landlines, is polling as consistent as it once was?  Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about the changing political polling.

Interview Highlights: Andrew Smith

How do pollsters keep up with new technology?

“Well it is very difficult and it’s a problem across the country. Less so in New Hampshire thankfully. But what we can do if you’re using live interviewers is you can call cell phones. It costs more, it takes more calls to complete a survey, but you can do it. There are ways around it. The bigger issue is that our response rates have been declining overall for the last 20 to 30 years. It’s been an ongoing process.”

“I think it has to do with multiple things. First off, that back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, polls were more unusual. There weren’t that many of them, and if you got called by a pollster, it was kind of a special thing. We’ve seen an increase in the number of polls that are done, both at the national level but also in state elections as well, to the point where people don’t see it as a unique thing to express their opinions to a pollster. The second big thing that happened though was the change in telephone technology that added call waiting, caller ID and call blocking, which made it easier for people to not pick up the phone when a pollster called. So all of those things that can combine have led to a decrease in response rates, and cell phones is just one more recent component of this.”

On whether or not voters could do away with polls

“That’s a great question, because you certainly can, and you will find out that polls are going to be meaningless after the election. I think though that we have election polls for the same reason you have scoreboards at a baseball games. People like to see what’s happening now. And polls are probably the best way of the relatively few ways that we can determine who’s winning and who’s losing.”

“The difference between, say, the fourth or fifth candidate who’s on that stage and the candidate who is not on the stage, the 11th-place candidate, is going to be insignificant statistically.”

“In primaries in particular – and we’re in this period that we call ‘the invisible primary,’ where there haven’t been any votes – the ways that you can determine how well a candidate is doing is how much money they’re raising, and especially how many people they’re raising money from. Endorsements is another indication of support, particularly within a party. And then the third way is polling. All of these things are integrally related, so they feed on each other. If you’re polling well it’s a lot easier to raise money, if you’re raising money it’s a lot easier to get into the press, which boosts your poll numbers. But polls I think are useful in describing what’s going on in an election. If we don’t like polls, the person we have to look at is the person in the mirror.”

On the decision to allow candidates into the debate based on polling results

“I think that’s really unfortunate, for many reasons. First off, the difference between, say, the fourth or fifth candidate who’s on that stage and the candidate who is not on the stage, the 11th-place candidate, is going to be insignificant statistically. There’s not going to be any real difference between those people. In fact you’re probably going to get to the point where half of a percentage point’s difference between candidates. So there’s no real mathematical way of doing that. Even using averages of multiple polls.”

“Secondly, and I think this is more important, there’s no real national campaign that’s going on. People may be paying a little bit of attention to it nationwide, maybe at tiny bit more attention to it even in states like New Hampshire and Iowa, but the campaign really hasn’t been engaged, voters won’t really be engaged in this election until late in the fall. So we’re asking people, who are in states in which the campaigns aren’t going on at all, to ask who they favor at a time when nobody’s paying attention to the race. So all we’re going to get are reflections of name recognition of candidates.”


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