Will Pollsters Call During the Superbowl?

02/01/2008 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ABC News and The Washington Post reported results of a new poll today, which asks Americans which major event they are more excited about, the Super Bowl or the Super Tuesday primaries. It got me thinking about a very good point made yesterday by reader "fourth" in our comments section:

I remember seeing something about weekend polling here and how Sunday afternoon/evening was actually a great day to catch people at home. This sunday is the Super Bowl! How are any of the final polls going to be able to account for this? Half the nation is going to be somewhere else watching the game. Basically we won't get to know the real impact of the debate tonight, as we have to question any movement over the weekend.

What fourth remembers is an observation I made in discussing the potential pitfalls of weekend interviewing:

When pollsters like me worry about "weekends" we mean Friday night and Saturday, not Sunday. Actually, late Sunday afternoons and evenings are among the best times to catch people at home, especially in the winter. And I see much less to fear from a survey that begins calling on Friday and finishes on Sunday, so long long as all of the "no answer" numbers from Friday and Saturday get dialed again on Sunday night.

Sunday night is typically a great time to call, but obviously, as fourth and other readers point out, the Super Bowl presents a big barrier. Ordinarily, pollsters would not call during the game itself, as reader bdevil02 points out, as "the response rate would be dismal." In this case, frankly, I am not sure what the media pollsters will do.

Depending on the procedures that pollsters use, the Super Bowl does create some chance of a bias due to people who will simply be unavailable on Sunday. We saw evidence that strongly suggested a skew that worked against Obama over the Thanksgiving and and Christmas holiday weekends. Could Sunday night provide a similar effect?

My hunch is that it probably will not, for two reasons. First, as the ABC/Post poll shows, voters who are more excited about the Superbowl than Super Tuesday tend to be male, younger, single, less educated and from the Northeast (not surprising given the teams involved). Those subgroups cut both ways in terms of the Obama, Clinton contest: Younger voters and men tend to support Obama, while Clinton does better among downscale white voters and in the northeast. So the net impact -- assuming any sort of Super Bowl "bias" -- may cancel out.

Of course, that particular ABC/Post question is not completely on-point. The demographic break-outs we would really like to see involve the questions they asked about plans to watch the game and identify the "big" fans of professional football (those who would not respond to a poll call during the big game).

Second, polls that call back unavailable respondents over successive evenings -- such as the Gallup Daily -- will minimize the impact of any potential Super Bowl skew. Consider: If you are heading to an evening party, the pollster still has a good chance of catching you at home and willing to participate on Saturday afternoon or Monday or perhaps earlier in the day (or later in the evening on the West Coast) on Sunday. As long as the pollster is persistent about calling back, the Super Bowl itself should not provide the same sort of barrier as travel over a holiday weekend.

Of course, the Super Bowl presents a much bigger potential problem for surveys that make little or no effort to re-contact unavailable respondents (such as the Rasmussen Reports nightly tracking or any survey completed in just one night). And remember, just because a pollster calls over multiple nights does not mean they go to the extra trouble and expense of doing "call backs." That particular wonky detail is, unfortunately, something that pollsters often fail to disclose in their public reports.

Update - I emalled Gallup to ask about their plans. Gallup's Jeff Jones responds:

We won’t be calling during the Super Bowl. Even though its not an official holiday, it might as well be in terms of being able to conduct interviews. We’ll call during the day Sunday and finish it before the Super Bowl begins.

Update: The Washington Post's Jon Cohen sends the demographic breakdown of the question on Super Bowl viewing