Another day, another poll. This time it’s from Galaxy (they might update their website sometime soon), written up in the News Limited tabloids.

It has the poll gap narrowing, with Labor leading the Government in the two-party preferred by just 53 to 47%. Galaxy has left Liberal MPs, already on a Federal Council high, with stars in their eyes. The moonbeams seem to have dazzled some commentators, too.

“John Howard’s date with political annihilation has been postponed by a stunning opinion poll fightback,” says Malcolm Farr.

Oh, please! It’s true that Galaxy has a good track record, but before anyone gets too carried away, they should take the Mumble Masterclass on opinion polls. Peter Brent warns:

An individual political opinion poll usually can’t tell you much. It’s not very accurate. For one thing, the process is highly artificial. In the real world, the Electoral Commission doesn’t phone you up one day out of the blue, tell you an election is on and ask who you will vote for.

On the other hand, the polls are not useless. In fact they are great if you don’t take them literally. They are registering something, but it is best if you take them in totality: look at the trend. When a poll is published, you should add it to your bundle of knowledge – and all the polls that have come before it.

Polls become better predictors as an election approaches and the scenario they ask about becomes less hypothetical. For now, though, we should be looking at the trends.

The soft Labor support that showed up in Friday’s Morgan poll which asked voters “Do you think Australia is heading in the right direction?” probably tells us more at the moment than any single poll of federal voting intention.

It found 43% of Labor supporters – 21% of all electors – believed Australia was heading in the right direction. The contradiction’s easy to see.

The way people in the 20-odd most marginal seats in the country cast their votes will probably decide the next election. On the big day, will they really vote Labor if they believe the country is heading in the right direction? That would make some polling really worth getting excited about.

Peter Fray

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