State polls: Rural media face rising cost of political surveys

For years pundits have gone on about the death of polling, from a decline in response rates to candidates rejecting the accuracy of polls. But in Montana, consumers rarely face the problem of evaluating a poll’s accuracy; the state had a lack of polling to begin with for most of 2016.

RealClearPolitics, a polling aggregator, had zero results as of October 2016 for Montana, which shared that distinction with Alabama, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Polls are expensive, and in those states, very few organizations were willing to foot the bill.

Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick said an October 2016 phone poll funded by Lee Enterprises newspapers cost almost triple what it did four years ago. One factor is the prevalence of cellphones. Not only does it cost money to obtain a list of cellphone users and their numbers, but the portability of a cellphone number means someone may not actually live and vote in the region their area code is from.

Another factor that makes polling more expensive has to do with the questions asked. Editors from newspapers across Montana drafted questions for the Lee survey, including ones focused not on the horse race of the 2016 election, but on Montanans’ attitudes about it and the political issues they care about most. 

Fewer groups are making that kind of investment because they hope to get the feedback they’re looking for through social media. Pollsters generally agree, however, that online polls are not as reliable as phone polls because it’s harder to reach a random sampling. “Especially in a contentious political year, we want something that will stand up to statistical scrutiny,” Ehrlick said. 

Margaret Grayson is a junior studying journalism at the University of Montana. She’s a policy nerd and a breakfast enthusiast, currently working as a news editor for the Montana Kaimin.