Too many polls

The U.S. is over-polled. You might have noticed this during the recent election campaign when national polls were performed roughly every 2 seconds. (This graph shows the incredible redundancy just from the major polling organizations.)

It would be interesting to estimate the total number of persons polled during the last year. A few years ago, I refereed a paper for Public Opinion Quarterly reporting on a survey that asked people, How many times were you surveyed in the past year? I seem to recall that the average response was close to 1.

My complaint is not new, but this recent campaign was particularly irritating because it became commonplace for people to average batches of polls to get more accurate estimators. As news consumers, we’re like gluttons stuffing our faces with 5 potato chips at a time, just grabbing them out of the bag.

I’m a hypocrite (or maybe just self-interested)

I analyze poll data all the time, and I have been involved in the design of some surveys, and so it’s hypocritical of me to criticize the system. I’m actually part of the problem. Or maybe I’m just self-interested: if I can convince everybody else to stop polling, then this will clear the field for the surveys that I think are important. Or maybe I think something should be done before we have a national Do Not Poll registry.

Declining response rates

Back in the 1950s, when the Gallup poll was almost the only game in town, it was rational to respond to the survey–you’d be one of about 1000 respondents and could have a reasonable chance of (indirectly) affecting policy. Now you’re just one of millions, and so answering a pollster is probably not worth the time (See here for related arguments).

In recent years, as polling has proliferated, response rates have been going down. Why bother responding at all? Bob Groves and others have done research in this area. One reason to respond is to be helpful and civic-minded.

The recent proliferation of polls–whether for marketing or to just to sell newspapers–exploits people’s civic-mindedness. Polling and polling and polling until all the potential respondents get tired–it’s like draining the aquifer to grow alfalfa in the desert, or dredging all the crabs out of the bay–a short-sighted squandering of a resource that should be renewable.

OK, got that out of my system. I feel better already.

2 thoughts on “Too many polls

  1. Yeah, and you really get polled if you live out in the sticks. When we lived in the city and the suburbs we NEVER, EVER got polled. We moved to the country, and now its once or twice a month!

    No wonder America is a nation of rural values.

  2. Kaleberg,

    That's interesting. I thought that most national surveys used random digit dialing, with all residential phone numbers roughly equally likely. I wonder if what happened is: you responded to one poll, and they put you on a "nice guy" list, which they then sold to other survey-takers. I don't know if such lists of previous respondents exist, but it would make sense, at least in the short term, for pollsters to keep sampling phone numbers of people who are known to respond.

    Does anyone know if this sort of thing is actually done?

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