Three things are true in the United States in August of 2019: Joe Biden is the Democratic front-runner in the latest polls, tens of millions of Americans are in debt, and there are billions of spam calls blowing up our phones every month.

These three things have a lot more in common with each other than we might think.

Against all odds, former Vice President Joe Biden has regained his double-digit lead over the rest of the 2020 field of candidates, according to a new CNN poll. This is despite Biden having multiple cringe-worthy moments during his stump speeches in early primary and caucus states and having lackluster debate performances in both June and July.

The former Vice President saw his support among black voters drop by 50% after Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) confronted him on his opposition to busing (which was meant to de-segregate public schools) during the first debate. He even lost at least one major donor after that debate. That donor — San Francisco-based Tom McInerney, who was one of President Obama’s bundlers in 2008 — even said “I imagine I’m not alone” in terms of donors who abandoned Biden.

Given his apparently faltering campaign, what else could explain Biden’s lead among Democrats in the latest poll? When looking at the methodology, CNN and SSRS Research surveyed 1,001 likely Democratic primary voters by landline (351 respondents) and cell phone (650 respondents). This essentially means that while one-third of respondents were polled using a means of communication that nearly everyone but senior citizens have since abandoned, the other two-thirds of the sample are people who are comfortable answering their smartphones when random numbers call.

In 2018, spam-blocking app TrueCaller detected roughly two billion spam calls per month overall, amounting to an average of 23 spam calls per month, per person. That’s an increase from roughly 18 spam calls per month in 2017. As a result of the constant spam calls, caller ID app Hiya found that smartphone users answer 52% fewer calls. And when the number comes from an area code they don’t recognize, smartphone users don’t answer calls 76% of the time. Hiya also reported an increase in spam calls between 2017 and 2018, with 18 billion robocalls made in 2017, and 26.3 billion robocalls in 2018 — a 46% increase. The number of robocalls in 2018 has even been estimated to be as high as 48 billion, and 2019 could prove to be even worse.

For many Americans, there’s one primary reason we don’t answer calls from numbers not saved in our contacts — we’re in debt! In 2018, business news site The Motley Fool found that 80.9% of baby boomers were in debt, along with 79.9% of Gen-Xers, and 81.5% of millennials. And of those indebted Americans, the Urban Institute found in 2018 that 71 million have debt that is currently in collection, meaning payments are so late that debt collectors are now contacting debtors in order to obtain payment. This could be a major factor in deciding whether or not someone answers their phone when an unrecognized number calls. Sure, it could be a pollster asking for our opinion on which candidates we support. But it could also be the IRS.

For pollsters, all of this means that calling enough numbers to get an appropriate sample of Americans takes much longer. And for voters, it means that we should take polls with a grain of salt, and understand that any candidate that’s doing well in polls is only doing well among the small minority of Americans who are comfortable answering calls from random numbers, and who are likely not in arrears to the point where they avoid calls from any number that could be a debt collector.

In May, the Senate almost unanimously passed a bill that would crack down on spam calls by a 97-1 margin. However, there has not yet been any action in the House of Representatives on the legislation, and Trump has not signaled whether or not he would sign the bill. Until pollsters find a better way to get an accurate sample of respondents or until the government finds a way to crack down on robocalls, polls will likely never accurately reflect where Americans stand on candidates and issues.

(Featured image: GoodFreePhotos)


Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.

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