It is only fitting that a presidential election that spent more time debating a war three decades past than the current one and that steadfastly refused to engage the ticking entitlement timebomb within the federal budget could expend energy puzzling out how cell phones impact the body politic. Both left and right found reasons to question poll numbers based on the distribution of technology and the steadfast belief—mad hope, really—that their guy is actually more popular than the dead-heat numbers suggest.
Supporters of John Kerry kicked off the funny business with the observation that pollsters do not yet have a reliable way to poll cell phone users who lack a land line. As the landline-less skew young and urban, the supposition was made that pollsters are missing a deep well of Kerry support. Why, Kerry's supporters were being underpolled!
However, as pollster John Zogby notes, less than ten percent of the adult population falls into the cell-dependent category, far too small a number to skew polls designed to hit a cross-section of voters. Text message surveys might be needed for future elections, Zogby thinks, but for 2004 it is not a huge issue. Besides, there has to be some real evidence that the landline-less really are more liberal than their tethered opposites and, most vital of all, some evidence that this subset of potential voters are, in fact, likely voters. There is none.
But the facts should not get in the way of good story. The cell phone angle morphed down and across technologies to the point where even Caller ID was cited as a potential source of poll-skewing. Surely Caller ID does not skew to the right or left, unless the idea is that the act of refusing to take a pollster's call somehow queers the results. Pollsters have long tried to factor in the time-of-call and callback issues into their methods to avoid over-representing one group, so this is nothing really new.
Still, it wasn't long before Bush supporters turned the technology equation around. If too much technology underpolled Kerry voters, too little technology underpolled Bush voters. There were forgotten voters in the Amish communities of Ohio and Pennsylvania whom pollsters were missing. The Amish were without Caller ID, landlines—the whole deal. They were invisible to pollsters and, hence a Bush secret weapon.
There is, however, a good reason for pollsters not to worry much about voting by the Amish, who do not traditionally turn out to vote. The Bush campaign manifestly aims to turn this around on Tuesday, but like any other group of voters, the Amish must first vote to be considered likely voters. We will see.
Apparently the prospect of Democratic efforts to register thousands of new voters in each battle ground state has pushed Bush supporters over the edge in their search for a GOP equalizer. For example, National Review's Jonah Goldberg mused repeatedly on the Bush underpolling theme, positing that there exists such animus toward George Bush among the public that voters are actually ashamed to tell pollsters they support the guy.
One could just as easily make the case that Kerry supporters have been bullied into silence in some key communities, military ones for example, and hide their true preference when pollsters call. We are down to guessing on this point, but it is certainly an interesting claim that your guy is really more popular than he seems precisely because he is so widely hated.
Most important is what the underpolling claims reveal about how Kerry supporters and Bush supporters view the world. The secret Kerry vanguard is made up of hip, young urbanites energized into political action by a corrupt and incompetent war machine. And the rising Bush army is comprised of simple, honest country folk, disdainful and distrustful of modernity, finally compelled into political action by mendacious, alien threats at home and abroad. This an electorate polarized right down to competing creation myths.
But enough of this, to the main point, do the Amish have cell phones? If they do, the Mennonites have the kick-ass ringtones.