05/01/2008 03:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Disconnected: The Internet's Endless Shortcomings for Political Polling

Douglas Usher is the Senior Vice President of Widmeyer Communications and formerly Vice President at the Democratic polling firm, The Mellman Group.

"The survey research and marketing industries need to recognize that the Internet and cellphones, not landlines, are likely to be the wave of the future." So says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll.

I met Humphrey Taylor once - in 1999. He pitched Harris Online services to the Democratic polling firm where I worked, and his team said that telephone surveys in politics would likely be replaced by web surveys after that election cycle.

Was he right about political polling? Hardly - in fact, he couldn't have been more wrong. Let me make this as clear as possible: no professional political pollster on either side of the aisle has ever used web-based surveys for quantitative research in their campaign practice.

And as any reader understands - and all serious consumers of political polling know - you can count on one hand the number of public pollsters using online methodology for political polls. Even John Zogby, who claims that his firm has "since the mid-90's... utilized the Internet as a means of providing the public with instant access to the day's best public opinion research," has like most pollsters used telephone polling this cycle.

Internet polling is a growing industry. I use it all the time for my clients - indeed, it rules many aspects of consumer research. So, why the disconnect for politics?

Because quantitative political research for nearly all levels of American politics hits the "sour spot" of internet research.

Let me explain.

Internet-based research is perfectly suited for certain types of public opinion research:

  • Qualitative research: in-depth, group level research designed to evaluate reactions to specific ideas, issues, and stimuli (like campaign ads) - research which provides rich feedback, but is not projectable on the population at large. The internet provides a (virtually) limitless pool of volunteers that will provide quick feedback about a candidate, product, print or television ad. It provides a reasonable - and often less expensive - alternative to focus groups, without the travel.
  • Quantitative research among broad populations: For the broadest audiences - "adults" nationally, "likely voters" nationally, and "likely voters" in some states - internet research can provide a reasonable (and again, less expensive) alternative to telephone polling. The opt-in panels that internet research vendors build - if properly cleansed and refreshed on a regular basis - have been demonstrated to be reliable proxies to telephone research for point-in-time quantitative measurement.
  • Quantitative research among narrow populations where e-mail contact is previously established: This type of research includes organization membership research, or a survey of loyal customers, or an internal corporate survey. One of the fallacies spread by those who sell public opinion research services on the internet is that because people are on the web, they are reachable on-line. But unless someone provides you (or an organization) with their e-mail address, it is nearly impossible to find them. However, for internal organization research, internet research conducted of a complete (or near-complete) population by e-mail has become an excellent alternative to phone surveys.

These three types of research describe most of the public opinion research for which clients pay money - hence, the internet has become a valuable research tool.

And qualitative public opinion research is well-suited for the internet (finally, the end of notoriously unreliable mall-intercepts!)

However, quantitative political public opinion research -- polling -- hits the internet's "sour spot" because it requires reaching a narrow population for which pollsters do not have well-defined web contact information.

How well do you think Harris Interactive's national panel maps on to likely voters in New York's 26th Congressional District? If you were polling Indiana's primary, would you feel comfortable that the list of e-mails that you bought from a vendor actually contained properly registered voters in the state with past primary vote history?

Some internet survey vendors claim that they have representative general election statewide panels. This may be true - but how many times can you go back to that panel before you exhaust it? Pollsters in competitive races will track data for 30 days or more - well beyond the capacity of internet vendors in even the largest state.

It's not because political pollsters are "old-fashioned" that they don't conduct web-based quantitative research - it's because there is no reliable way to reach their candidates' electorates online in a way that meets even a modest level of methodological rigor.

None of this is to discount concerns about telephone polling - ever-lower response rates, and caller-ID and cell-phone only households that makes reaching people on the phone more difficult than ever.

But, for political polling, internet-based research has not proven to be the panacea once (and continually) promised.

UPDATE: Humphrey Taylor responds.