21 months ago, back in October 2006, one of the ALP focus groups had their attention turned to Peter Costello — the results pretty much stated the obvious. Costello was considered the usual things like smug and snide, with some going so far as to describe him as a weasel and a creep.

But once that rather large problem was overlooked and the focus group members were forced to find good things about Costello (which is the way these focus groups tend to work) , they thought he carried a share of the responsibility for the “good economic management” of the Howard government and he wasn’t as out of touch as Howard. The former being a coat tail issue for the government as a whole that Costello rode, and the latter being nearly entirely a function of Costello having less years on the clock than Howard had.

From this single finding of October 2006, an outbreak of horsesh-t has swept the land of political columnists — particularly those of the Coalition cheerleading variety.

To give an example of the types of silliness exhibited by most of the miles of column inches written over this in the last week — Saturday’s Weekend Australian editorial says:

The research warned Labor that if Mr Costello was given the freedom to establish his own profile as leader, he could quickly neutralise the generational-change strategy that swept Mr Rudd to power.

The first problem with this is simply chronological. The research was undertaken months before Rudd took the helm of the ALP. The research couldn’t have “warned” Labor that Costello could neutralise a strategy that hadn’t yet been developed against a guy that hadn’t yet become leader.

So what we actually have is focus group research from one period of time framed in the reality of the events and status quo of that time, being projected onto a later period of time where the reality and status quo of that later period of time were completely and fundamentally different.

Focus group research of this kind has what’s called “intertemporal sensitivity”. The results you get from this type of research are based on the political reality of the time the research was undertaken. As reality changes via political events occurring as well as time itself simply passing, the context that determined those focus group results changes.

The further away in time that you apply focus group results, the exponentially larger is the uncertainty that accompanies them because certainty, in this case, is dependent on there being no change in either the political reality that frames the public’s opinion, or time itself changing the public’s opinion.

So the chronological basis for the argument is weak to begin with. Secondly, it misinterprets what “generational change” meant in practice. Rudd being younger than Howard helped win the ALP victory, but only because it was consistent with the general “it’s time for a change of government” theme, which was one of, if not the most common single response that came out of focus group research on why people would elect the ALP — and it came out on both sides of politics, both before and after the election.

The leadership of the government might have changed, but it still would have been the same government, it still would have been the same problem.

The other problem here is what we touched on at the beginning — the focus group research found that Costello was considered the usual things like smug and snide, with some going so far as describing him as a weasel and a creep. It was only after the respondents were forced to look beyond their dominant thoughts and forced to think nice things about Costello that they could actually come up with any.

Leaders can reshape the publics view of them and bring those subterranean “good things” to the front of the publics attention if, and only if, that top layer of association isn’t actually true — the public tends to have a good long term rather than short term bullsh-t detector.

If we look at Mark Latham, what came out in focus group research was that he was erratic, aggressive and untrustworthy, but underneath those top level associations a large number of people genuinely thought that he had the best interests of the country at heart and that he gave a real sh-t about the plight of people.

But the latter message could never be fully exploited simply because the top level negative issues were true.

And that is Costello’s problem — and ironically it’s a problem largely created by his cheerleaders in the media. His Question Time performances were lauded by his lickspittles and they received greater media prominence than they ordinarily would have if sections of the media weren’t so fond of them.

But when Joe Public sees five and 10 second grabs year after year of Costello’s politicking in QT, far from seeing Parliament as theater or the making of copy for newspaper columns — they see a smug, aggressive boofhead throwing the type of sh-t that would get his lights punched out in any self-respecting watering hole around the country.

The good things voters believed about Costello when they were forced to look could never rise to the top because the negative things they thought about Costello were simply true. But importantly, every time they watched the nightly news it reinforced just how true they were.

The whole basis of the last week of nonsense about Costello, that if he became leader he could have neutralised the ALP themes or he could have quickly made up ground in the polling, is based on a gross misunderstanding — or deliberate misrepresentation — of the reality of focus group research and a complete ignorance of the quantitative data we have.

Focus group research is interesting and gives important insights and ammunition for a political strategists — but if you got every major political strategist worth their salt and asked them if they had to run an election and could only have either focus group research or quantitative data to do it with, London to a brick every one of them would opt for the quantitative data.

And what does the quantitative data tell us? It tells us that Costello wasn’t popular against Howard (who wasn’t popular against Rudd), and it tells us that he wasn’t popular against Labor leaders generally.

First, the Newspoll results since 1998 that measures the question of who would be best to lead the Liberal Party:

That speaks for itself. What needs to be noted here though is that Turnbull scored 12 percent for the September 2007 poll in a three way between Howard and Costello whereas the other results were always Costello and Howard head-to-head.

Next up we’ll take a look at how Costello stacked up in the Newspoll hypothetical questions of preferred PM against the Labor leaders:

Two things to note here — apart from the regularity of being thumped by opposition leaders in hypothetical PPM numbers, there is one entry missing. The May 2005 survey put Costello against both Beazley and Crean, and Costello out rated Crean 47 to 28 with 25 uncommitted.

The other thing to note is that Costello did beat Beazley in April 2006 — when Beazley had satisfaction ratings of 26% and dissatisfaction ratings of 61%. Yet by July when Beazley’s dissatisfaction rating was down to 50% and his satisfaction rating up into the low 30’s, Costello again was beaten.

So we have the cheerleaders waxing on about grossly misunderstood or blatantly misrepresented focus group research from 21 months ago vs the quant data over the last 9 years.

Does anyone really need to buy a vowel here to figure out which one is the most likely?

The cheerleading commentators better be careful lest they get what they wish for and Costello comes back to lead the Libs.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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