EVEN before the U.S. Census Bureau began to mail its surveys to the nation's homes this spring, director Robert Groves says he never expected to match the 72 percent response rate attained in the 2000 census.

So much had changed: The U.S. population had grown by 30 million people, the number of non-native English speakers had risen dramatically and the economy had forced Americans to move or foreclose on their homes.

All those factors were expected to make it more difficult to get people to mail back their surveys.

But surprisingly the response matched the 2000 rate and was all the more remarkable, experts say, given the declining participation in surveys of all kinds.

"In fact, I urge the journalists to call up your favorite researcher and ask them could you achieve the response rates today you could achieve 10 years ago," Groves dared reporters recently.

Indeed, several researchers agreed a 72 percent rate far exceeded what most surveys attain. Without citing hard figures, they said rates vary widely, depending on the subject matter and the type of survey - mail, phone or in-person.

The Long Island response rate was a bit short of the national trend - 70 percent, down from 75 percent in 2000. Observers here speculated changing demographics, such as an increase in immigrants, could be behind the dip.

Researchers attributed the Census' national success to its comprehensive strategy: Plenty of advance notice the census was coming; the census itself; a reminder postcard to fill out the questionnaire and mail it back; and ads stressing the simplicity of the form.

The Census' success comes at a time the survey industry says it is getting tougher to get people to respond. "The response rate challenge has gotten greater and greater," said Mark Schulman, chief executive of Abt SRBI, a Manhattan-based survey research company.

Experts said the chief reason seems to be the sheer difficulty in contacting people and changes in lifestyles.

People often aren't home at the dinner hour as they used to be, said one researcher. "It is a reality that people are very, very busy," said Diane Bowers, president of the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, a trade group based in Port Jefferson.

Among the problems for survey groups is the growing use of caller ID - people often decline to answer numbers they don't recognize - and the widespread use of cell phones that did not exist 10 years ago. Schulman explained cell-phone users often must pay a fee to their telephone company when a call comes in, and dropped calls sometimes prevent a survey from being completed.

Don A. Dillman, a professor and deputy director for research and development at Washington State University, said survey response rates have been declining since the 1990s.

He said a variety of factors were at work, among them a cultural shift where e-mail is the preferred mode of communication over phones for "important conversation."

Dillman said mail survey participation - like the census - has not declined as steeply as phone or in-person surveys. Some mail surveys by universities, for example, "can get high response rates, between 55 and 70 percent, and we're using many of the methods used by the Census Bureau," such as multiple contacts, said Dillman.

Dillman noted, "response rates do shift depending on subject matter" and who's sponsoring the survey. Response rates for marketing surveys tend to be much lower than social science surveys sponsored by government; the latter being seen as coming from a "legitimate organization" on important topics, he said.

Researchers attributed the Census Bureau's impressive results to its unique status: The U.S. Constitution mandates it be conducted every 10 years - and billions of dollars in federal aid to states and localities are at stake.

"With the census, you're starting with a threshold of interest," Bowers said. "Everyone knows this is mandatory. It's important. The value it has to society, not just in terms of congressional reapportionment, but in terms of understanding our people. The 72 percent response rate we absolutely applaud."

But the Internet may change all that. Some researchers are looking to conduct surveys online - as is the Census Bureau in 2020, at least partially. The bureau conducted an early pilot program for the 2000 count in which just over 63,000 households answered the census online, but the bureau concluded more research was needed on security issues, for example.

Noting "difficult response rates" with more traditional survey methods, Carl Fusco, director of operations for Infosurv, a market research firm in Atlanta, said, "That's one of the reasons online is becoming so prevalent."

He said his firm does 90 percent of its product, customer satisfaction and loyalty surveys online.

And Groves, quoted in a news report last month, said, "None of us can imagine doing a 2020 Census without an Internet option."

Deadly stabbing verdict ... Hunter Biden indicted .. High school sports awards Credit: Newsday

Macy's fire ... Harrison timesheet investigation ... Uncovering Santos ... Oyster Bay dining

Deadly stabbing verdict ... Hunter Biden indicted .. High school sports awards Credit: Newsday

Macy's fire ... Harrison timesheet investigation ... Uncovering Santos ... Oyster Bay dining

Latest Videos

Newsday LogoYour Island. Your Community. Your News.Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months