Pollsters find unexpected boon: Americans stuck at home willing to talk

Pollsters find unexpected boon: Americans stuck at home willing to talk
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Lonely Americans trapped in their homes because of the coronavirus outbreak are answering their phones to talk to political pollsters in big numbers, a reversal of fortunes for an industry that has recently struggled to connect with people.

The Hill interviewed more than a half-dozen of the nation’s top political pollsters, and all of them said the same thing: People are locked indoors. They’re bored. And they’re far more likely to answer the phone when an unidentified number blazes across their cell phone screens.

Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen said he bought a list that normally assures him of 500 respondents. He booked 1,000 interviews in no time flat.

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Suffolk University polling director David Paleologos said the response rate for some of his surveys is three times what it normally is.

OnMessage pollster Wes Anderson told The Hill that in a typical call, the goal is to complete the survey in 20 minutes or less because you start losing people after 13 minutes on the phone. At the moment, respondents are hanging on the line for 30 minutes or more.

“Our response rates are through the roof now that we have a captive audience,” said John Anzalone, the chief pollster for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE’s campaign. “Everyone is home and people want to talk.”

The pollsters acknowledged this phenomenon is likely temporary, and it’s not clear that there’s much added benefit for the polls beyond the fact that they’re coming together quicker and easier than they have before.

“I don’t think the accuracy has changed,” said Keith Zeig, executive director of polling for McLaughlin & Associates, which conducts polling for President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE’s campaign. “It just now takes less dials to get a person to answer their phone and an easier time to keep them on the phone.”

There are questions about whether the high rate of responses are adding more variation to the polls, as the sample sizes grow to include demographic groups, such as young people, that have not traditionally responded to phone calls from pollsters.

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“We are getting slightly different people picking up than before with our random digit dialing,” said Patrick Murray, the polling director for Monmouth University. “We could be getting more younger people, or a different mix of younger people that might lean more conservative. We can finish these polls quicker than before, but the question is whether the results are changing because of the mix of who is answering.”

The industry faces other challenges as well.

Several pollsters described a steep drop off in business, saying their clients fear that any horserace poll commissioned at the moment will be warped by current events in this fast-changing environment.

“Clients are waiting for the crisis to pass because they’re worried any numbers they get now for races in the fall may end up being obsolete,” Jensen said.

The coronavirus has led to a drawdown in political spending across the board, leading to a slowdown in everything from polls to media ad buys.

Fundraisers are having a tough time raising cash from once-reliable donors. Campaigns aren’t running political ads and they’re less likely to commission a poll, with the general election still six months out and the economy in turmoil.

“It's a great time to get people on the phone — maybe the best response rates in a dozen years — but it's not necessarily the most likely time for clients to want to be in the field,” said Jon McHenry, the pollster for North Star Opinion Research.

“There's no telling how the virus plays out for people's health and for the economy a month from now, much less in September and later. There are clients who stand to benefit from a benchmark survey now, figuring out effective criticisms and which policies are supported, but the horserace is dicier,” he added.

And the transition from crowded calling centers to having people work from home has been a challenge, as it has been for many industries.

“The call-houses have had to reduce the amount of interviewers due to social distancing, extra cleanings during shifts, and some unable to work from home,” said Zeig. “At the moment they are still able to complete the same amount of work because of the higher production rates.”

McHenry said the shift to a remote workplace might hasten the move to more online polling and research.

“We're still using the same vendors. For a lot of phone centers, that means people working on a … system from home,” said McHenry. “The technology allows that in a way you probably couldn't have done 10 years ago and for sure couldn't have done 20 years ago. And for national research, much of that is online anyway. This may be the final push for the few holdouts to accept online research as the primary methodology on national work.”

But for the most part, the dramatic spike in response rates has been a boon to the industry, which has otherwise struggled to adjust to the fast-changing ways that people communicate.

Pollsters that would normally ambush residents with phone calls around dinner time, when they expect people to be home from work, have expanded their call hours to include the middle of the day, knowing that most people are marooned at home.

"Right now, I could complete a 30-minute survey without a problem,” said Anderson. “I know that's temporary."