The Problem With Polling Latinos

PHOTO: President Barack Obama waves to supporters as members of the Mexican Rock band Mana walk off stage during campaign event.

As pundits and politicos make proclamations about how Latinos will cast their votes, pollsters warn that Latino voters are still the hardest of all to measure due to barriers unique to the population.

Most voter polls throughout the election season have found that considerably more Latinos will be casting ballots for Obama than Romney by roughly 2 to 1.

Before Democrats declare certain victory though, many pollsters warn that getting an accurate handle on Latino voters is a harder task than with any other voting group because Hispanics in particular tend to be young, multi-lingual, and mobile -- and therefore more expensive (and difficult) to survey.

"There's always a trade off in polls between cost and perfect coverage of the population," said Trevor Tompson, the Principal Research Scientist and Director, Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. "You never have an unlimited budget."

The high price tag for polling Latinos has limited the number of trusted polling institutions that consistently survey the community, with some of the largest studies costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars. Pew Hispanic Center, Bendixen & Amandi, and Latino Decisions (which Univision has partnered with to conduct polls) have emerged as some of the most prominent in the field, although each have different philosophies about where corners can be cut to save money (and how many of such cuts can be made and still be able to consider a measure trustworthy.)

So why is polling Latinos in particular so expensive?

For one, hiring bilingual interviewers is a must, says Pew Hispanic Center's Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez who noted that over half of Latinos polled at his institution choose to do their survey in Spanish. To not allow for Spanish respondents, or to require a "call back by a Spanish language interviewer drastically cripples the survey's credibility, even though these options might be cheaper than hiring bilinguals.

Another issue is cell phone usage. Because Latinos skew younger and are less likely to be anchored in one home for a long time, it is important for polling agencies to have access to cell phone number lists, in addition to landline phones -- a luxury which also adds to the cost of the survey.

Sampling Latinos as a small fraction of a national survey can also often problematic, pollsters say. Fernand Amandi from Bendixen & Amandi (a firm that conducts polling for President Obama) notes that translating long-winded English surveys into Spanish only makes them longer, and Hispanics have less patience when it comes to answering lengthy surveys, and will cut the survey short more often.

"There's only so much tolerance in Latino culture for these 85 question Odysseys," Amandi said. "Especially when you consider that it takes 15 to 13 percent longer to do the same interview in Spanish than in English."

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