Pollsters Are Not The Only Ones Who Struggle to Reach Cell-Phone-Onlys

04/26/2009 10:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The survey research community is focusing intently on the challenges posed by the fast-growing share of Americans who are cell-phone-onlys (CPOs). In fact, there are 40 papers being presented on the topic at the AAPOR conference next month. One of the practical issues faced by pollsters is whether the cost of reaching CPOs is worth the payoff. Last week, Scott Keeter, Mike Dimock, and Leah Christian hosted a forum at Pew during which they discussed this tradeoff. But pollsters aren't the only people who have to make cost-benefit decisions when it comes to deciding whether to attempt to contact CPOs. Campaign organizations must make the same calculation.

So how well did the campaigns do at contacting CPOs during the 2008 campaign? The chart below compares the percentage of those with landlines and cell-onlys who reported being contacted by a campaign representative in 2008. The data comes from the National Election Study (NES), which uses residential sampling and face-to-face interviews to interview both landline and CPO respondents. In the chart below, the blue bars show the percentage of each group that reported being contacted while the black lines represent 95% confidence intervals for these percentages.


The chart shows that CPOs were much less likely to be contacted by the campaigns than people with landlines. Over half of landline respondents reported being contacted compared to less than one-in-three CPOs. This sizable difference holds up even when controlling for age, income, education, partisanship, and a variety of other factors.

The next chart (below) indicates that for those CPOs who were contacted, the contact tended to come overwhelmingly from Democrats. Over 80% of CPOs who were reached by the campaigns were contacted by the Democratic side while just a little over one-third were reached by Republicans. Republicans were significantly more competitive with Democrats when it came to contacting those with landlines.


Unfortunately, the NES did not include questions asking respondents how they were contacted by the campaigns. But a subset of respondents to the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (which I've analyzed in previous posts) were asked these questions. The chart below plots the responses for those who had landlines compared to CPOs.


CPOs who were contacted by one of the campaigns were significantly less likely to have had that contact over the phone compared to those with landlines. Otherwise, there were not major differences between how landline and CPO respondents were contacted. CPOs were somewhat more likely to get an email while those with landlines were a bit more likely to receive snail mail, but neither of these differences are large. The percentage being contacted in-person or by text message were nearly identical for both groups.

Overall, the findings from these surveys suggest that shedding your landline may help you avoid those pesky campaign calls in future election years. While Democrats were a little more successful than Republicans in reaching CPOs, the cell-only crowd was almost as successful avoiding campaign volunteers as they were hiding from pollsters.