Are the Greens losing support? On Monday, Michelle Grattan noted in The Age that Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric opinion poll numbers appear to be eating into the Greens.

It’s true. Under Kim Beazley in 2006, Fairfax’s pollster ACNielsen had the minor party bopping around between 8% and 12% and averaging about 10%. Since December, they’ve registered consecutively 11, 9 and then 7. Newspoll has had the Greens as low as 4% this year (they got 7 at the last federal election), and Morgan has also recorded an average one point drop from last year.

Much popular analysis sees Greens voters as trendy “elites”, bitterly estranged from “real Australians”. But there are about a million of them, they live and breathe, and their votes count the same as yours. They tend not to live in outer suburbs, but the next election will probably sweep away the tired old template that that’s where elections are decided.

The question “do Greens’ preferences make a difference?” has two answers. One is that preference deals between a major party and the Greens have next to no effect in the House of Representatives, because about three-quarters of them flow to the ALP, and Bob Brown couldn’t hold them back if he tried.

Labor is fortunate the Nats won’t let the Libs introduce optional preferential voting federally. It would likely shave a point or two off Labor’s two-party preferred vote. On the other hand, technically, oodles of electorates (at least, conservatively, 15) would have gone the other way in 2004 if Greens preferences had flowed differently.

The Greens’ current trough in the opinion polls should be seen through its role as mopper-up of disaffected Labor support. The same trend appeared in early 2004 as true believers jumped on board the Latham express.

Eventually, Labor support went down, Greens went up and they got a record 7% at the election — seen as disappointing at the time against unrealistic expectations. This year as well, Labor’s current, preposterously high numbers will drop by election time, and most will go to the Coalition and some to the Greens and others.