Thanks to the elbowing among states that pushed the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries into early January, those contests will be held shortly after Christmas and New Year's Day. Campaigns and news organizations scrounging for last-minute data, which can detect crucial eleventh-hour shifts, will have to deal with polling during the holidays, something pollsters usually avoid like the plague.
"We're in uncharted territory," said Mark Schulman, who polls for Time Magazine and corporate clients. "We've never faced the need or possibility of having to poll during this period."
The reasons: It's harder to get a truly representative sample of the public during the holidays because younger, more affluent people tend to be traveling, shopping or otherwise busy. Even people at home are less willing than usual to be questioned by a telephone interviewer because they're busy or would rather spend time with family and friends.
Add to that the deadline pressure of Iowa's January 3 caucuses and New Hampshire's January 8 primary, both historically early dates. Presidential campaigns will want data immediately, and news organizations will want to churn out their polls quickly for competitive reasons, leaving less leeway for pollsters to spend more time making additional phone calls to get their samples just right.
Pollsters can address these problems with extra interviewing, which is costly, and by weighting - the routine practice of adjusting results so they accurately match the population's makeup by age, income and other categories.
"It's certainly not going to be a piece of cake, but it's not Mt. Everest," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which has been polling in both early states.
Even so, many say polling during the holidays may yield questionable results.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of public pollsters that get this wrong," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster not working for a presidential contender. "A lot are quick and dirty to start with, and the holiday season makes quick and dirty even less" accurate.
Some pollsters say the worst period for polling begins about Friday December 21 this year, but there could be a window from around December 27 to December 30 when calls can be productive. Andrew Smith, whose University of New Hampshire Survey Center conducts a poll in that state, said he might make calls until 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve and resume on January 3, but adds that people in the small state are already showing signs of polling fatigue.
"Not only are pollsters calling, but you have all these campaigns making those annoying recorded calls. People don't want to pick up their phones," he said.
New Hampshire has its own challenges because its primary - the nation's first - will come just five days after Iowa's caucuses. The Iowa results can dramatically affect what happens in New Hampshire, putting tremendous pressure on pollsters to accurately gauge how that is playing out, especially those working for the campaigns.
"You need instant results, and instant results done on a single night of interviewing can be deeply problematic" because you miss people who ordinarily take several days to reach, said Jan van Lohuizen, GOP candidate Mitt Romney's pollster. "You're forced to do things that from a telephone interviewing point of view are kind of ugly."
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