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NYT: Online Polls and Traditional Pollsters

Topics: Internet Polls , Pollster.com

Let's start, once again, with the unavoidable conflict: Pollster.com is owned and sponsored by Polimetrix, a company that conducts online surveys. We are, however, walled off in a way that allows us the editorial freedom to write whatever we choose to write (about online surveys and anything else), while also keeping us ignorant of the work that Polimetrix does for its clients.

Case in point is the must-read article on online surveys that appears in today's New York Times. I heard about it not from my corporate overlords, but from a colleague who posted it on the member-only listserv of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The key quote:

Despite the strong skepticism, Internet-based survey results are likely to get some publicity during the 2008 elections, and executives from companies that conduct these surveys hope that they can use the attention to gain credibility for their methods.

YouGov, for example, has formed a partnership with Polimetrix, an online survey company based in Palo Alto, Calif., for surveys in the United States. Polimetrix, with a panel of one million people, plans to track the 2008 presidential election with a 50-state survey covering a minimum of 1,000 panelists in each state.

"State-by-state election results are an important way for us to prove that our methodology delivers accurate results," said Douglas Rivers, a Stanford University political science professor who founded Polimetrix in 2004. "You can be lucky once, but not 50 times."

Professor Rivers said that the margin of error for Polimetrix surveys is similar to that of polls conducted by telephone. YouGov said that its own results in recent British elections were as close or closer to the actual votes than traditional polling methods.

Oh, so many conflicts, here. I also serve on the executive committee of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), which has condemned as "misleading" the reporting of a margin of sampling error associated with opt-in panels. I supported that statement and, as regular readers know, have been critical of online surveys that report a "margin of error. So on what basis can Rivers claim that "the margin of error for Polimetrix surveys is similar to that of polls conducted by telephone?"

Leaping at the opportunity to bite the hand that feeds me, I emailed Doug Rivers for his comment. His response on the narrower issue of sampling error is a bit technical, and I have copied it below. His larger argument is about how all surveys deal with bias. Telephone surveys that begin with random samples of working telephone numbers suffer some bias in representing all adults due to those who lack landline phone service (coverage) or refused to participate in the survey (non-response). We know, for example that they tend to under-represent younger Americans and those who live in more urban areas. To try to reduce or eliminate this bias, pollsters currently weight by demographic variables (such as age, race, education level and urban/rural geography).

As a pool of potential respondents "opt-in" Internet panels also suffer a bias -- how big is also a matter of some debate -- because panel members must have Internet access, discover the survey panel (usually through an advertisement on a web site) and volunteer to participate. Rivers believes his "sample matching" technique will ultimately do a better job reducing the bias of the opt-in panel universe than standard weighting does to reduce the bias in standard telephone surveys. That is the crux of his argument.

Like a lot of my colleagues, I remain skeptical, but nonetheless committed to an empirical evaluation. As I wrote in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2005 (well before I had any business relationship with Polimetrix):

At what point, if ever, might we place greater trust in surveys drawn from opt-in panels? The only way we will know is by continued experimentation, disclosure, and attempts to evaluate the results through the Total Survey Error framework. Opt-in panels are gaining popularity, whether we approve or not. We should encourage those who procure and consume such research to do so with great caution and to demand full disclosure of methods and results. If nonprobability sampling can ever routinely deliver results empirically proven more valid or reliable, we will need to understand what produces such a result.

In a few days, Charles Franklin and I will begin posting the findings we presented at the AAPOR conference, which include an assessment of how the Polimetrix and other panel surveys did in 2006. This is obviously a debate that will continue in the world of survey research, and we will try to follow along, conflicts and all.

PS: Doug Rivers response regarding the "margin of error:"

Standard errors measure sampling variability & sampling variability is easy to calculate when observations are independent, which they definitely are for large opt-in panels and phone surveys. (The standard error calculation is more complicated for cluster samples, where the observations aren't independent, but these samples aren't clustered; matching introduces another source of variability, but the effect on standard errors is relatively small.) The MSE [mean squared error] calculations involve squared bias and my ambition is to beat your average phone survey in MSE by bias reduction.

 

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