07/13/2007 08:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cell Phones and Political Surveys: Part II

Two weeks ago, I took a long look at the cell-phone
only problem
and whether the absence of those without landline phones is
affecting survey results. Today, I want to conclude with a look at how
pollsters conduct surveys via cell phone. Like Part I, this article is long,
even by standards. So it continues after the jump.

This year's annual conference of the
American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)
featured a special "track" of presentations on lessons learned from a variety
of pilot tests of surveys that interviewed respondents on their cell phones. Just
to provide a sense of their depth and breadth, here is a list of some of the
most recent pilot tests presented (full details on offline references appear at
the end of this article):

  • Studies conducted in three states (GA, NM and PA) this year as part of the Center for Disease Control's 50-state Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRSFF) surveys (Link, et. al., 2007).
  • Studies in six states (MA, FL, NJ, FL, MT & TX) conducted by the research firm Macro International on behalf of clients including the BRSFF and the Adult Tobacco Survey (ATS) -- (Dayton, et. al., 2007; ZuWallack, 2007).
  • A study in 2006 conducted for the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) -- (Brick, et. al, 2007).
  • A study in February conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as part of the Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS) of (Boyle, et. al., 2007)
  • Studies conducted since 2002 by the Arbitron, including a pilot survey of more than 9,000 respondents conducted on their cell phones in 2005 (Fleeman, 2007).
  • Pilot studies conducted in 2005 by the British firm GfK NOP. (Moon, 2007)

The point is that the most scientifically rigorous survey
methodologists are doing considerable research and development on how to
conduct interviews over mobile phones. Their presentations at the AAPOR
conference provide insights on the technical challenges they are grappling
with. What follows is a summary of some of those issues.

Sampling -- The
process of drawing of random sample of cell phone numbers is relatively easy
and essentially the same as the "random digit dial" (RDD) technique for sampling
landline telephone numbers. Here's the oversimplified version of how it works: Companies
like Survey Sampling
and Marketing
Systems Group
obtain listings of the special telephone exchanges (the first
three digits of a seven digit telephone number) assigned for cell phone usage
and draw a sample from all possible numbers that could occur within those
exchanges. They randomly generate numbers from the pool of all possible numbers
in those exchanges

One key difference is that cell phone samples cannot use "list
assisted sampling", a process that makes landline RDD samples more efficient by
using computerized telephone directory listings (think "White Pages") to count the
numbers in each exchange. Without such data, and the cost efficiencies that
result, cell phone surveys more expensive to conduct.

Dialing - The
federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)
bans all unsolicited calls to a cell phone using "automated dialing
devices." Most pollsters use computerized systems to dial the numbers and administer the questionnaires. The obvious solution -- having interviewers hand dial
each number -- slows down the process and increases cost (it also effectively precludes doing
cell phone surveys using an automated, interviewer-free, IVR methodology).

Cooperation -- As
most of us know, cell phone users pay for most of the "minutes" they consume and carry their phones in the midst of other activities, so pollsters have
long assumed that respondents would be more reluctant to cooperate with a cell
phone survey than a landline survey. As such, most of the pilot studies offered
each respondent a cash incentive ranging from $5 to $20, depending on the
project and length of the survey. A few of the government sponsored pilot
studies tested the impact of such incentives and found mixed evidence. In some
cases the incentive did not seem to boost participation.

Nonetheless, in virtually all of the studies, the response
rates were slightly lower for the cell phone studies than their landline
counterparts even with financial incentives. For example, the Pew Research
Center reported an
average response rate of 23% on their three cell phone surveys of adults (which
offered respondents a $20 incentive) compared to 29% on the landline surveys
(which offered no incentive). Interestingly, the pattern was reversed
on their "GenNext"
survey of 18-24 year olds, where the response rate was higher on the cell phone
survey (29%) than the landline survey (25%).

Driving and Liability
-- What if the respondent is driving a car when the pollster calls? Could
the pollster be subject to legal liability for potentially distracting the
driver? Most of the pilot studies immediately ask if the respondent is "currently
driving a car or doing any activity that requires your full attention," and if
so, offer to call back at a later time. The ORC pilot studies found that
roughly a third (32%) of their initial contacts were driving at the time (Dayton, et. al.). Needless
to say, that extra screening and rescheduling also ads to cost of interviewing.

Costs -- All of
the challenges listed above make for higher costs for cell phone surveys. Another
cost factor is the added per-interview cost of screening out those with
landline service (if the purpose of the cell phone study is to interview only
those out of reach of landline surveys).

Pew's Keeter reports that with
the incentives included, the per interview cost of their cell phone studies was
"approximately 2.4 times" the cost of comparable landline surveys. If the
cell-phone-sample screens to identify cell-phone-only respondents, "the per
interview costs are four to five times as large." A paper on the BRSFF pilot
studies reported very similar cost differences (Link, et. al., 2007).

Geography -- One
of the potential pitfalls of a cell phone sample is the weaker association
between telephone numbers and geography in surveys of states or local
geography. Cell phone subscribers may buy a phone in a location far from their
home, or may keep their cell phone number even when moving from one state to
another. Arbitron found, for example, that 32% of the numbers in their cell
phone study "were not in the county associated with the cell phone number," as
compared to 6% on their comparable landline sample (Fleeman, 2007).

Screening & Weighting
-- Aside from cost, one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to best
combine the cell phone and landline samples. The root problem is that survey
researchers do not have great experience or data on the probabilities of
reaching various kinds of cell phone users. Some users carry their phones
everywhere an answer calls at all hours. Others may use them only during
daytime hours or turn them on only for emergencies.

The pilot studies conducted by the Pew Research
Center interviewed
everyone they reached via cell phone, thus allowing for a comparison of the
responses of "dual users" (those with both kinds of telephone service) reached
by either cell phone or landline survey. Theoretically, we should see no
differences because the target population (dual users) should be identical. In
practice, however, significant differences emerge. A paper
presented at the AAPOR conference by former Pew analyst Courtney Kennedy showed
that dual users interviewed by cell phone tended to be younger, "reflect[ing] heavier usage of cellular phones among young

But what if pollsters screen out dual users and only
interviews those in "cell phone only" households? Even here, they may
over-represent heavier cell phone users. Kennedy reported that she could reduce
bias (as measured against in-person studies) in a combined sample by weighting
respondents according to self-reported cell phone and landline service, in
addition to standard demographics.

* * *

So what is the
bottom line? Surveys via cell phone are feasible, but much more expensive than
landline surveys and with some methodological kinks (like weighting) yet to be
worked out. Supplemental cell-phone
interviewing is going to be important for the multi-million-dollar government
surveys that track health and health related behavior (including some measures
that currently show statistically significant bias when the cell-phone only
population is missed). However, it is not yet clear that very expensive
supplemental RDD cell-phone samples will make a noticeable improvement in routine
political studies over the next year or two (see Part I).
The cost alone puts this approach out of reach for most media and internal
campaign surveys.

I asked some of the
national political pollsters about their plans in this regard. Not surprisingly,
the Pew Research Center's
Scott Keeter was the most open about their plans:

We are currently discussing our plans for cell phone research in the
coming year. It's possible that we will do some type of major study, but I am
pretty sure that we will include cell phone samples -- or cell-only samples --
in a few surveys conducted between now and the November elections. We do not
intend to make cell samples a standard feature of our sample designs. It is too
costly, takes longer, and the weighting must be regarded as experimental for

California's Field
has also been using a registerd voter list sample (RBS) to
interview some respondents via cell phone (possible because many Californians provide a
cell-phone number when they register to vote).
Most of the others, as per standard practice, prefer not to comment
(either on or off the record) about their future plans. However it is worth
noting that organizations such as Gallup and ABC
conducted post Katrina cell phone surveys in Gulf Coast
states, and thus have gained experience with the methodology.

So what do we do
about the cell-phone only problem? Those of us who obsessing over political
polls need to keep a close eye on the special cell phone surveys conducted by
the Pew Research Center
and, perhaps, by others pollsters. These will provide invaluable clues as to
whether the cell-phone-only problem is creating any sort of consistent errors
in political surveys.


All of the following papers were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for
Public Opinion Research, Anaheim,
California in May 2007:

Brick, J. Michael, Sherman
Edwards, Sunghee Lee. "Sampling and Interviewing
Methods for Cell Phone Surveys"

Boyle, John M., Alan Block, Eunyoung Lim. "Cell Phone Augmentation of a National RDD Survey."

Dayton,James, J., Cristine
Delnevo, Susan J. Cummings, Zi Zhang, Lori Westphal, Michelle Cook, Diane Aye,
Randal S. ZuWallack, Naomi Freedner, Ruth Burnstein. "Cell
Phones and Public-Sector Survey Research: Are Incentive and/or Compensation
Offers Really Needed

Fleeman, Anna. "Survey
Research Using Cell Phone Samples: Important Operational and Methodological

Keeter, Scott, Courtney
Kennedy, Trevor Tompson, Mike Mokrzycki, April Clark. "What"s
Missing from National RDD Surveys? The Impact of the Growing Cell-Only

Kennedy, Courtney. "Constructing
Weights for Landline and Cell Phone RDD Surveys

Link, Michael, W., Michael
P. Battaglia, Martin R. Frankel, Larry Osborn, Ali H. Mokdad. "Conducting Public Health Surveys over Cell Phones: The Behavioral
Risk Factor Surveillance System Experience."

Moon, Nick. "Broken Voices
on Broken Phones: Can Interviewing Be Done by Cell Phone, and at What Cost?"

ZuWallack, Randall S. "Combining
Cell Phone and Landline Samples: Dual Frame Approach