NEW YORK – Recent polls show President Bush (search) with either a slight lead over challenger John Kerry (search) or the two rivals virtually tied, but some election watchers wonder if those results are valid because of one seldom-mentioned "swing" group: cell phone users.
Pollsters generally do not contact cell phone users because of prohibitive Federal Communications Commission (search) restrictions, and some political experts believe they are skewing poll results — possibly by as much as 1 or 2 percent.
"The government and the FCC are going to have to let pollsters get through to cell phone users," said Democratic strategist Bob Beckel. "When tens of thousands of people every month are opting out of land lines, you can't leave that segment out of polling and expect to have anything accurate."
More than 170 million Americans own cell phones, according to the Wireless Association (search) in Washington, and the number of those ditching their home phones altogether — 6 percent — seems to be climbing.
The trend may present an additional complication to pollsters already confounded by caller I.D. and voice mail. It is illegal for polling organizations to use auto-dialing equipment to call cell phone numbers, and while they are allowed to contact cell phones manually, they cannot do so at the cost to the cell phone's owner.
Most research organizations rely heavily on auto-dialing equipment rather than manual dialing for cost efficiency, which means current polling methods could be excluding millions of potential voters.
Many of those left out are young people. Twelve percent of Americans under 35 years of age, and 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, use cell phones exclusively.
Eric Nielsen of the Gallup Poll (search) said that while he is concerned about the issue, the demographic sampling of even young cellular-only users is comparable to the pool already available to his organization.
"The people who are cell-phone-only users are not one demographic, and that's something people are overlooking in this whole debate," Nielsen said. "Young adult polling is not heavily for one candidate over the other; they're splitting pretty evenly."
Nielsen urged caution on Beckel's push for an FCC rule change, saying that even if technology made it possible for polling organizations to pick up the tab they could still face liability issues, for instance, when calling people while they're driving.
Some cellular-only people said they wouldn't mind participating in surveys, particularly those of a political nature.
"If it was like a Gallup Poll about the election I'd talk to them," said Rawan Abdelrazek, a 31-year-old economist at the World Bank (search) in Washington, D.C. But "they should pick up the cost ... because you're paying for the minutes," she added.
Elyse Gammer, operations officer for the Market Research Association (search), believes the cellular-only trend will make polls increasingly unreliable, but predicts changing attitudes toward new technology will help the industry adjust.
"If the cell phone is an extension of the communications package, then naturally there will be a cultural shift," she said, predicting that consumers may eventually become accustomed to taking survey calls on their personal cell phones.
One prominent pollster believes if the industry doesn't react soon it will face serious problems. In a press release last month, John Zogby wrote that while telephone polling currently works, the industry will face a crisis within the next decade as more Americans ditch their home phones. Already, more firms are conducting online polls, which many see as the wave of the future.
But the cell phone issue might not just be a matter of numbers. Beckel believes the polling rules may be disproportionately excluding minorities and poor people.
"A certain demographic of people who use their cell phone as their major phone, they tend to be more downward economically, they tend to be more minorities ... it's probably a more Democratic vote," Beckel said.
— FOX News' Megyn Kendall contributed to this report.