Last election The Big Issue’s Andrew Weldon had a cartoon showing some increasingly frazzled newsreaders hyping opinion polls coming in at a rate around one a minute. The punchline is that it’s still six months to the election.

At the time it might have seemed a little overblown. Back then Newspoll and Morgan were releasing federal election polls fortnightly and ACNielsen monthly. Now the cartoon looks remarkably prescient.

We now have Galaxy adding to the national polls, along with an increasing number of queries of federal voting intention in specific states or electorates. However, things really got Weldonish when Newspoll decided to run four polls in the space of two weeks, supposedly in search of the ‘Budget Bounce’, a creature almost as hard to find as the Loch Ness Monster.

Given that even when budget bounces do show up they appear to take six weeks, it is hard to see much in this other than a desperate desire by Government-supporting News Ltd executives to find some straw of hope to cling to, even if it means throwing away a fair bit of Uncle Rupert’s dough in the process.

I suspect the psychology is a little like a compulsive gambler. When a couple of polls showed improvement in the Government’s fortunes they felt they were on a roll and desperately bet their meager emotional winnings on another spin of the wheel. Having now lost, will they decide their only hope is to bet again, or will they seek counseling?

One thing I doubt they will do is ask what quantum physics has to say about all this. One of the two truly great insights of 20th century physics was that just doing an experiment can affect the outcome — Schrödinger’s Cat is neither alive nor dead until you open the box to check on its health, fixing it in one or the other state in the process.

Lots of people keep telling us that the voters have not yet engaged, and this may well be true. But if someone from the polling company asks you how you would vote your judgement may not be all that thought out, but having made it you probably have a certain investment in sticking to it. Once the words “I’d vote Labor” are out of your mouth you need that extra little incentive to change your mind, lest you see yourself as flighty and indecisive.

There are now so many polls occurring that a significant proportion of the population is getting polled about how they think they will vote — even more if you live in an interesting seat like Bennelong.

Since Kevin Rudd’s elevation, opinion pollsters have asked almost 50,000 Australians how they will vote. I wonder how many have had their psychological wave function collapsed, entrenching them in as position that might otherwise have been more easily altered by the campaign.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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