What makes one opinion poll the yardstick by which the media commentators measure what they think is really going on in the public mind?
There are four polls running regularly in Australia during the current campaign: AC Nielsen, Galaxy, Morgan, and Newspoll.
All of these have regular media platforms: AC Nielsen in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Galaxy in the News Ltd tabloids, including the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph, Newspoll in the News Ltd broadsheet The Australian, and Morgan on Crikey.
Having a regular media platform is one essential factor in building a poll’s reputation. For many years, the Morgan poll was synonymous with The Bulletin, and in those days was the most widely quoted poll in the other media.
In recent years, after its arrangement with The Bulletin came to an end, the visibility of the Morgan poll diminished, and consequently it was no longer such a fixed feature of the news cycle. When that happens, journalists tend to overlook it. Now that Morgan has a new platform – Crikey – it may rebuild that profile.
It was similar for the Saulwick Poll, which for 23 years was published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, until 1994.
Another factor in a poll’s standing is its expertise, as perceived by media and academic commentators. Where these people have faith in the work of the poll, they will confer credibility on it not only by publishing its results but by adding adjectives such as “respected”.
This can be a tough reputation to maintain. A couple of bad results, especially around election time, and quite quickly this reputation is lost.
For many years Morgan was regarded as the most accurate at measuring voting intention and the standing of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition as preferred Prime Minister.
Similarly the Saulwick Poll was regarded for virtually all its life as the most imaginative poll and best at measuring public attitudes to a range of social and political issues. Irving Saulwick himself became a highly visible analyst to whom the media turned for input. This enhanced the standing of the poll.
In recent years, Newspoll has clearly become the poll the commentators attach most credibility to, when it comes to voting intention and preferred Prime Minister.
The reason probably is that over a long time, under the careful and knowledgeable leadership of Sol Lebovic, it maintained high operational standards, adopted sound methods for distributing preferences and for dealing with undecideds. It slowly built a good record for consistency, and seldom showed much variation from its own trend lines. At election time, it has generally called the result correctly and well within sampling variance.
Lebovic too became a credible source of analysis and this fed back into the poll’s standing.
Newspoll sticks to its last. It doesn’t go in for gimmicks. It keeps within a fairly narrow compass, concentrating heavily on national polls, with a few extras such as polling in selected marginal seats.
The result of this cautious approach is that you don’t find the name Newspoll splashed about in association with an unpredictable range of polls. It is not a name that crops up in surprising places. It crops up where it is expected to do so, and at the expected time.
By this means, it has established itself not only as part of the news cycle but as part of the political cycle. When a poll attains this status, it affects the fortunes of political leaders. We saw this in 2006, first with Kim Beazley’s leadership and then with John Howard’s: what the forthcoming Newspoll was going to show fed into the anticipatory activity in party ranks and, as a result, into the media coverage of leadership speculation.
A platform like The Australian suits this kind of poll exactly. The paper is not much interested in froth. It is interested in politics. This in turn gives Newspoll the opportunity to go on doing what it does best, and not to get sidetracked into polls about people’s attitudes to cappuccino.
AC Nielsen, having taken over from the Saulwick Poll for the Fairfax broadsheets, has taken some time to establish its standing but now seems to be doing so as its expertise in the field of political polling grows. Its chief analyst, John Stirton, has also grown in stature, and is becoming increasingly widely quoted.
Pre-eminence comes from constantly being there, from consistency of data, from calling pre-election result close to the final vote, from having a credible analyst who can talk about the data, and from having a suitable platform the needs of which match the strengths of the poll.
It can be hard to break in, as Galaxy is finding. Leaving aside its early blemishes over push polling, it seems to have produced some good work, but it is new and is attempting to serve the needs of tabloid newspapers. They want surprises. So Galaxy pops up with a poll in Howard’s seat of Bennelong and another on what people think about the Budget surplus — which is like asking people their attitude to the theory of relativity.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this (apart from asking questions people have no idea how to answer), but it doesn’t allow the commentariat to get a handle on its quality as a measurer of national voting intention or preferred Prime Minister, which are the politically potent statistics.
So even with its comparatively large platforms of mass-circulation tabloids, Galaxy has not acquired “yardstick” status because on its own this factor is not nearly enough.
Denis Muller, as News Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and later as Associate Editor of The Age, worked with Irving Saulwick on the Saulwick Poll from 1984 to 1992