Is Russ Feingold Actually Leading? It's All About the Cell Phones

Student with cell phoneMadison Teachers Inc. is in a small, blond brick office building. It's the kind of building you might expect to find in an industrial park and seems out of place in Madison's funky coop-shopping, granola-crunching, Williamson Street neighborhood, where Victorian is the dominant architectural style. It seems odd then that few people I've talked to knew where it was -- you'd think it'd stick out like a sore thumb and, therefore, be memorable. Still, it's easy to find from the handful of campaign yard signs out front and the hand-lettered "Welcome volunteers!" banner on the entrance door.

This is my second shift of volunteer work for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. My first shift was at the Feingold campaign headquarters, located in what used to be a bar just off the Capital Square. I sat in a storefront window and made calls with a well-used campaign cell phone. This time, I sit in a white conference room with campaign literature taped to the walls, in between framed posters celebrating the ethnic diversity of Wisconsin school children. But if the locations of the phone banks are very different, the experience is very much the same.

In both cases, a mostly older crew of volunteers (say, 40 and up, with retirees well-represented) are supervised by very young campaign staffers. There isn't one staffer I wouldn't ask for an ID before serving beer. But experience tells me that the young are better suited to campaign politics; they've still got that learning gene switched on, so they're quick on the uptake and still used to crunching numbers -- and, believe me, they're doing a lot of that. They're figuring contacts per hour, ratio of Republican to Democratic contacts, percentage of people who say they'll definitely vote compared to those who just say "probably," percentage of early voters by district, etc. Trust me, every number is compared to another one and broken down into a percentage or ratio. A big chunk of behind-the-scenes campaign work is analyzing data. These are the front lines and the battle is fought with phones and calculators.

I'm given a seat at a folding table, a list of names with phone numbers, and a cell phone. Then it's dial, dial, dial. There's cookies, soda, and a little chit-chat, but mostly we just dial. The work ethic of a volunteer is a wonder to behold.

As one staffer is training a new volunteer, I hear a snippet of info -- Feingold internal polling puts him ahead of his opponent, multi-millionaire plastics magnate Ron Johnson. There's good reason to believe this is on the money: first, inaccurate polling is useless to a campaign. You want real numbers, not pie-in-the-sky, happy-clappy, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear numbers. If you're behind, you want to know it. You don't win elections by underestimating your opponent and overestimating yourself. Remember that the next time someone disses the source of a poll.

And second, a recent St. Norbert's College/Wisconsin Public Radio poll put Feingold and Johnson in a statistical dead heat -- 47% Feingold to 49% Johnson. But it turns out this poll has a flaw -- it was a landline-only survey. As Pew Research recently pointed out, skipping cell numbers can give inaccurate results.

[Pew Research Center:]

The latest estimates of telephone coverage by the National Center for Health Statistics found that a quarter of U.S. households have only a cell phone and cannot be reached by a landline telephone. Cell-only adults are demographically and politically different from those who live in landline households; as a result, election polls that rely only on landline samples may be biased. Although some survey organizations now include cell phones in their samples, many -- including virtually all of the automated polls -- do not include interviews with people on their cell phones. (For more on the impact of the growing cell-only population on survey research, see "Assessing the Cell Phone Challenge," May 20, 2010).


In three of four election polls conducted since the spring of this year, estimates from the landline samples alone produced slightly more support for Republican candidates and less support for Democratic candidates, resulting in differences of four to six points in the margin. One poll showed no difference between the landline and combined samples.

So the St. Norbert's/WPR poll is either four to six points off in Johnson's favor (a three in four chance, if we're just playing the odds) or as accurate as a poll including cell numbers (a one in four chance). Another factor throwing the accuracy of the poll into doubt is that two Democratic Wisconsin strongholds -- Milwaukee and Madison -- have large pockets of students and renters. These two groups are the most likely to rely on cell phones and, coincidentally, are the most likely to vote Democratic -- in this state, at least. I've called the University of Wisconsin "the party's not-so-secret weapon." If that vote is underrepresented in a poll, there's no way that poll is going to be accurate. And that poll -- consistent with Pew's findings -- is very likely to be biased Republican. It wouldn't be an extremely comfortable lead, but ahead is ahead and I'll take it.

I'm already signed up to phone bank again next week. It's a lot easier to spank those phones when you're pretty sure you're making progress. I'm pretty sure we're making progress.


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