Are Young Cell Phone Users a Democrat Secret Weapon?

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:30pm EDT

( - The 2004 presidential campaign has produced a new challenge for polling firms: Getting in touch with the millions of Americans - up to 5 percent of the electorate - who rely solely on their cell phones, and therefore can't be reached for public opinion surveys.

Since many of those people are young and perceived to vote Democrat, there is speculation that Sen. John Kerry's chances on Election Day might be better than pre-election polls have indicated. Pollsters, however, seem unconcerned, claiming that individuals who only use cell phones represent a small portion of the electorate. They argue that the group doesn't overwhelmingly favor Kerry more than President Bush.

"It is not a specific demographic," said Eric Nielsen, a spokesman for The Gallup Poll. "As a whole, the cell phone-only crowd is not homogeneous. They're heterogeneous. Their opinions, especially political and policy attitudes, reflect those who have landlines."

Nielsen also disputed the notion that young cell phone users might give Kerry a slight edge that isn't showing up in polls. Government surveys have estimated 5 percent of households rely only on cell phones and Nielsen said young adults make up about 17 percent of the electorate.

Harvard University's Institute of Politics released a survey of young voters last week that gave Kerry a 13-point advantage over Bush. The latest Zogby tracking poll has Kerry up 57 percent to Bush's 43 percent among voters 18 to 24 years old.

But the college crowd won't be able to sway the election to Kerry, according to Nielsen, whose Gallup survey also shows the Democrat with an advantage among young voters.

"To get the overall number to move 1 percentage point," Nielsen said, "the cell phone-only group would have to be young people and it would have to be splitting 90 percent for one candidate or the other."

Despite the pro-Kerry polling numbers among young Americans, Alison Aikele, a spokeswoman for the College Republican National Committee, said she expects a much closer race. Aikele said the organization has registered 35,000 young Republicans, many of whom are actively volunteering on Bush's behalf.

"What is typically a shoe-in for the Democrats is now something Senator Kerry is struggling to keep," Aikele said. "We're finding our base much more energized."

The political influence of cell phone users has been a recurring topic in the news media in recent weeks. At a National Press Club event last week in Washington, pollsters Peter D. Hart and Neil Newhouse downplayed the consequences.

"While we may not be reaching people who have cell phones, we're not under-representing young people," said Hart, a Democrat who conducts the NBC-Wall St. Journal poll. He conceded, however, that "it may be harder for us to get to the young person."

Hart said his firm estimates about 4 percent of the population uses only cell phones. He said there's little evidence to suggest pollsters are getting misled as a result.

"With respect to the younger voters who have nothing but cell phones, you know what, we miss those people," said Newhouse, a partner at the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. "We can't reach them. It's illegal for us to call them."

Federal law prohibits polling firms from contacting cell phone users because they could incur charges. John Zogby, president and chief executive of Zogby International, has predicted a crisis in years to come.

"It is illegal for polling firms to call cell phones, coupling that with the rapidly increasing rate of cell phone use and the gradual decrease of landlines, the polling industry will face a crisis within a decade," Zogby wrote in September. "For now, the 170 million cell phones are largely duplicates and triplicates of landlines."

Pollster Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, agreed that by 2006 and 2008, cell phones would force some changes in the way polling firms conducted their surveys. But he also said pollsters have dealt with similar challenges in the past.

"You have to put cell phones in the context of everything else that has happened in the last 10 years," Rasmussen said. "Answering machines and caller ID have made polling more challenging. There was a time not too long ago when the phone rang and people felt compelled to answer it. They don?t have that sense anymore. Cell phones are another complication."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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