State polls with ‘federal implications’? Time to kill the myth
Time to kill another myth: “federal implications”.
I won’t reel off every journalist and politician who has insisted there are “federal implications” to the Western Australian state election, either directly using that phrase or otherwise opining on its meaning. I don’t need to. We now live in a political culture where professional journalists seriously discussed the “federal implications” of a state by-election in New South Wales in 2010.
What do “federal implications” actually mean? This is where it gets tricky. Does it mean voters are likely to vote the same way federally as they have previously at state level, so a state result is an accurate gauge of a federal election occurring shortly afterwards? What about “state implications”? Do voters vote the same way at state level as they have federally? National political journalists generally don’t bother with “state implications”, but there’s no reason why, once you assume voters are unable or unwilling to distinguish between state and federal issues, it shouldn’t run both ways.
And is it the be-all and end-all of voter choice? If the Labor brand is “toxic”, how important is that as a factor determining votes? Is it a dominant factor in determining vote, or just a nebulous addition to other factors like economic management? And what about candidates who defy voting trends through strong local work?
So let’s put it to the test. What evidence is there that voters regularly vote the same way federally as they vote at state level — or vice versa?
There were two state elections before the federal election in 2010, held in South Australia and Tasmania, five months before the August election, i.e. closer than the WA election to the federal election this year. In neither case did the performance of the major parties match their performance in those states at the subsequent federal election: in South Australia in the state election, Labor suffered a huge 7%+ swing in the lower house, which went directly to the Liberals. At the federal election five months later, both Labor and the Liberals suffered swings against them in the House of Reps, with the Greens, who’d only picked up 1.6% at the state election, benefitting from it. And in the Tasmanian election, Labor suffered a big swing, most of which went to the Liberals, but at the federal election the Liberals suffered a big swing against them, with Labor picking up votes; the Greens also picked up a swing, but somewhat less than at the state election.
If you look at the Victorian election held three months after the federal election, state Labor suffered a big swing in the lower house and lost government; the Liberals, the Nationals and the Greens all picked up swings. But three months earlier, both major parties suffered swings against them and, as in South Australia, it went to the Greens.
But the “state implications” idea works better for the NSW election in March 2011, admittedly many months after the federal election, but the swing against Labor and to the Liberals in NSW at the federal level was magnified at the state election.
“Out of 11 state or territory election held adjacent to federal polls since 1998, only three had similar results in terms of swings.”
What about in 2007? There was a NSW election in March that year, a long time before the November federal poll. The Liberals picked up a small swing from Labor at that poll, not enough to defeat Morris Iemma. Of course, in November there was a big swing to Labor in NSW under Kevin Rudd.
The 2004 election? We can test the “state implications” thesis in WA, where an election was held in February, not long after John Howard won his final term. At the 2004 federal poll, WA voters had swung hard to the Liberals, with a swing of over 6% in the House of Reps, partly from Labor but also because One Nation had imploded. But in February, West Australians returned Geoff Gallop for a second term with a swing of over 5%; the Liberals picked up a swing from the One Nation vote, too, of 4%. But the Greens, oddly, went slightly backward at state level after picking up votes in the House of Reps federally.
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