Oops, the polls did it again

Many people had trouble sleeping last night wondering if their candidate was going to be President. I couldn’t sleep because as the night wore on it was becoming clear that this wasn’t going to be a good night for the polls.

Four years ago on the day after the election I wrote about the “epic fail” of the 2016 polls. I couldn’t sleep last night because I realized I was going to have to write another post about another polling failure. While the final vote totals may not be in for some time, it is clear that the 2020 polls are going to be off on the national vote even more than the 2016 polls were.

Yesterday, on election day I received an email from a fellow market researcher and business owner. We are involved in a project together and he was lamenting how poor the data quality has been in his studies recently and was wondering if we were having the same problems.

In 2014 we wrote a blog post that cautioned our clients that we were detecting poor quality interviews that needed to be discarded about 10% of the time. We were having to throw away about 1 in 10 of the interviews we collected.

Six years later that percentage has moved to be between 33% and 45% and we tend to be conservative in the interviews we toss. It is fair to say that for most market research studies today, between a third and a half of the interviews being collected are, for a lack of a better term, junk.  

It has gotten so bad that new firms have sprung up that serve as a go-between from sample providers and online questionnaires in order to protect against junk interviews. They protect against bots, survey farms, duplicate interviews, etc. Just the fact that these firms and terms like “survey farms” exist should give researchers pause regarding data quality.

When I started in market research in the late 80s/early 90’s we had a spreadsheet program that was used to help us cost out projects. One parameter in this spreadsheet was “refusal rate” – the percent of respondents who would outright refuse to take part in a study. While the refusal rate varied by study, the beginning assumption in this program was 40%, meaning that on average we expected 60% of the time respondents would cooperate. 

According to Pew and AAPOR in 2018 the cooperation rate for telephone surveys was 6% and falling rapidly.

Cooperation rates in online surveys are much harder to calculate in a standardized way, but most estimates I have seen and my own experience suggest that typical cooperation rates are about 5%. That means for a 1,000-respondent study, at least 20,000 emails are sent, which is about four times the population of the town I live in.

This is all background to try to explain why the 2020 polls appear to be headed to a historic failure. Election polls are the public face of the market research industry. Relative to most research projects, they are very simple. The problems pollsters have faced in the last few cycles is emblematic of something those working in research know but rarely like to discuss: the quality of data collected for research and polls has been declining, and should be alarming to researchers.

I could go on about the causes of this. We’ve tortured our respondents for a long time. Despite claims to the contrary, we haven’t been able to generate anything close to a probability sample in years. Our methodologists have gotten cocky and feel like they can weight any sampling anomalies away. Clients are forcing us to conduct projects on timelines that make it impossible to guard against poor quality data. We focus on sampling error and ignore more consequential errors. The panels we use have become inbred and gather the same respondents across sources. Suppliers are happy to cash the check and move on to the next project.

This is the research conundrum of our times: in a world where we collect more data on people’s behavior and attitudes than ever before, the quality of the insights we glean from these data is in decline.

Post 2016 the polling industry brain trust rationalized and claimed that the polls actually did a good job, convened some conferences to discuss the polls, and made modest methodological changes. Almost all of these changes related to sampling and weighting. But, as it appears that the 2020 polling miss is going to be way beyond what can be explained by sampling (last night I remarked to my wife that “I bet the p-value of this being due to sampling is about 1 in 1,000”), I feel that pollsters have addressed the wrong problem.

None of the changes pollsters made addressed the long-term problems researchers face with data quality. When you have a response rate of 5% and up to half of those are interviews you need to throw away, errors that can arise are orders of magnitude greater than the errors that are generated by sampling and weighting mistakes.

I don’t want to sound like I have the answers.  Just a few days ago I posted that I thought that on balance there were more reasons to conclude that the polls would do a good job this time than to conclude that they would fail. When I look through my list of potential reasons the polls might fail, nothing leaps to me as an obvious cause, so perhaps the problem is multi-faceted.

What I do know is the market research industry has not done enough to address data quality issues. And every four years the polls seem to bring that into full view.

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