Man Without Qualities

Friday, October 15, 2004

Asking The Wrong Question?

The Mystery Pollster considers an issue advanced by Arianna Huffington:

Is the extensive use of cell phones, which pollsters do not even attempt to contact, distorting poll results?

The controversy surrounds the role of so-called "wireless only households," at least as framed by Ms. Huffington and the Mystery Pollster. As Ms. Huffington puts it:

[P]ollsters never call cell phones - of which there are now close to 170 million. And even though most cell phone users also have a hard line, a growing number don't - especially young people, an underpolled and hard-to-gauge demographic that could easily turn out to be the margin of difference in this year's race.

With all due respect to these two knowledgeable worthies, the Man Without Qualities believes the problem is much worse than Ms. Huffington suggests, and the Mystery Pollster's response does not even begin to address the full scope of the problem. In short: I suspect that the big problem is not "wireless only households" (although those are a problem, as Ms. Huffington notes and as the Mystery Pollster accepts as the core of the issue). I suspect on the basis of anecdotal evidence that the far bigger problem is households that (1) have cellular service and (2) a land line, but (3) also have "caller ID" on their land line, (4) don't answer the land line unless, possibly, they recognize the caller (sometimes, the land line goes directly into voice mail in all cases) and (5) do answer their cell phones but don't provide their cellular numbers to anyone they don't know well.

The Man Without Qualities knows many people who fit the profile outlined by factors (1) through (5). Moreover, these factors appear to address the practical requirements of many households. My best guess is that such "five-factor households" pose vastly larger problems for pollsters than "wireless only households."

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