What were we saying a fortnight ago about
polling as p*rnography for wonks? How are we supposed to take today’s effort
in The Australian
that supposedly shows “Labor’s biggest single
comeback in primary vote in a Newspoll survey in ten years in Opposition”?
Playmate Bloopers? How’s it supposed to sit with the bombshell for the Bomber
in the Fairfax broadsheets this morning?

Mr Mumble penned a nice essay on polling
for the Walkley Magazine in the wake of the 2004 election:

Quantitative
opinion polls aren’t that precise. But the process that pays for them pretends
they are. They cost a bundle and so are given pride of place. Once they’re
there, everyone involved goes along with the charade…

He was fair to polls and pollsters:

They’re the best
tool we have to anticipate election outcomes, and they’re pretty good.
Importantly, it’s the trend that’s useful, not the individual data, although as
we get closer to polling day each survey becomes a better “predictors”.

But he had a warning for the mad mugs who leap
on every available scrap of data:

The problems
begin when we take polls too seriously. We all know about the three
percent
error margin. A sample size of about 1,000 that reports, say, 48%
support for a party, has a margin of error of about three percent, so
the
“true” result might be anywhere from 45 to 51%. But that’s not the half
of it. This is with a 95% confidence interval, which means, on average,
one opinion poll in twenty is outside that error margin; we just don’t
know
which one.

Another obvious
problem: when was the last time the Australian Electoral Commission surprised
you with a phone call explaining there’s an election on, and who will you vote
for? The survey process is highly artificial, although it becomes less so as
election day approaches.

Which is a good lead into a couple of
comments you won’t read in The Australian. Don’t dismiss the telephone factor.
Face to face polling – like Morgan’s – produces different results. And we’ve
got to remember that the Newspoll today comes after good state wins for Labor.
Kimbo’s been diminishing in size of late, but there’s still enough of him for
some fairy dust to have landed on.

Peter Fray

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