Since the beginning of May, Essential Report has been asking their poll respondents about the firmness of their vote –  a valuable addition to the matrix of polling information we can use, as it gives us a measure of sensitivity in the strength of the primary vote levels of each party. The responses show some quite interesting dynamics – some being pretty obvious and expected, while others are more nuanced and complex. So today we’ll chew the fat on on the soft vote.

To get the data, Essential asked the following question:

How firm is your vote? ‐ Very firm; Pretty firm but I might change my mind; Might consider another party and leader closer to an election; Don’t know.

From these categories, Very Firm is is self explanatory, “Pretty firm but I might change my mind” is moderately firm, while “Might considering  another party and leader closer to the election” is for our purposes here, the “Soft” vote.

If we look at the average of these responses over the last 8 polls, and break them down by party vote, this is what we get (we’ll also add the primary vote averages):


Adding to this, we can also break the 8 week totals down into gender and age cohorts (click to expand).


What we see is that the Greens have a much higher soft vote than the major parties – or alternatively, more Greens voters may simply be open minded about their vote, or more Greens voters may simply be wishy washy – choose the definition that best fits your worldview here! 😛

The other noticeable difference in the numbers is how the Coalition has a much higher “very firm” vote than either the ALP or the Greens, and a lower “moderate” strength vote than either the ALP or the Greens.  Yet this doesn’t quite do the data justice. If we track the poll-by-poll voter firmness results across the period – firstly by Party, then by voter strength –we can see some interesting trends and patterns emerging.

Party by voting strength

alpfirmness coalitionfirmness greensfirmness

Voting strength by party:

veryfirm mightchange soft

The first few weeks of May saw a pretty major change occur among those voters stating they had a very firm vote, with the Coalition experiencing a significant jump in voter strength while the Greens simultaneously had a considerable decline. Over that same period we also saw a decline in the soft vote for both major parties while the size of the Greens soft vote increased.

One of the interesting things about these movements is that they didn’t coincide with any great change in the size of the primary votes of the three parties at the time  – which through to the May 24 poll, came in like this: primaryvotesmay

So these May changes in voter strength levels weren’t likely a result of voters shifting in blocks from one party to another, but appear to have come about as a result of something else. The RSPT  – which exploded onto the news scene in that exact period – would certainly be a good candidate for explaining the behaviour of the Coalition’s voter strength, but it’s hard to see how the dynamics of the RSPT debate would have affected the Greens voter strength so significantly. Theories on this would be most appreciated!

One of the things worth doing is looking at how voter strength behaves as a function of the size of the primary vote each party is achieving at the time. What we would logically expect to see is a positive correlation – where the larger the primary vote a party receives, the larger is the size of it’s soft vote as swing voters move hesitantly from one party to another.

However, what we actually find is a bit more complicated – which we can see by running a simple scatter and regression line for the three parties (click to expand).


What we find is that the Greens voter strength behaves exactly as we would logically expect – as their vote increases, those swinging voters that moved across to them from other parties increase the size of the Green soft vote. But what is a little unexpected is the result from the major parties where the exact opposite occurs. With the ALP and the Coalition, the larger their respective primary vote becomes, the smaller (on average) is the observed size of their respective soft vote proportion.

Exactly the same effect is seen when we compare the primary votes against the Very Firm levels of voter strength (click to expand).


Note – any dashed lines you see on these charts mean that the linear relationship is relatively weak in terms of  its explanatory power (explaining less than 10% of the variation) and contains enough uncertainly that the regression lines aren’t likely to be statistically significant (only indicative at best – for our purposes here). The solid lines however explain more than 10% variation *and* are likely to be statistically significant (I use the terms likely and unlikely here for statistical significance because we only have a small number of observations to work with).

As the Greens vote increases, the proportion of their very firm vote falls – which, as we saw with the previous chart,  occurs as the soft voters move into the Greens primary vote column and dilute the proportional size of their rusted on base. However, with the major parties, we see the opposite effect again – where the ALP’s very firm vote actually increases as the ALP primary vote increases and the Coalition’s very firm vote possibly increases as their primary vote increases (possible, because there’s a lot of variation in it)

One possible explanation might be that firstly, the Greens are picking up a good chunk of people that not only describe themselves as soft voters, but also act as legitimate swinging voters – people that say their vote is soft and act on it by changing their voting intentions (in this case, from the major parties to the Greens).

Secondly, large numbers of the major party soft vote may not in fact be “soft”  in the truest sense of the word, but instead may effectively be strong partisans that move between soft, might change and very firm according to how much they approve or disapprove of the party they nearly always support, at any given time (also noting that the actual numbers of people that are soft voters with each major party is over twice the size of the number of Greens soft voters in terms of absolute numbers of people – so the soft voter change within a major party would swamp those soft-swinging voters moving into the major party primary vote columns on the charts)

So if a major party increases its primary vote (suggesting that it is increasing its broader appeal to the electorate), then we would expect those self-declared soft  voters that are still effectively rusted on, to move from soft to further up the spectrum of voter strength as a consequence of that increasing appeal – moving into the “might change” and “very firm” categories. Similarly, as a major party sheds its primary vote (and shedding its general appeal), we would expect those same voters to move from “might change” and “very firm” down to “soft”.

That would certainly explain the dynamics we’ve been seeing, where the Greens are getting an increase in their primary vote corresponding to an increase in their soft vote, from mostly legitimate swinging voters  – while the major parties are mostly experiencing shifts of view within their rusted on vote.

If we compare the changes in the primary vote of each party vs the change in its soft vote over these polls, it reinforces the point – the change in the soft vote is on the vertical axis, the change in the primary vote is on the horizontal axis:

alpchange coalitionchange


It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a very robust dynamic with the ALP results – which isn’t surprising considering that ALP voters tend to moan more about their own party than their equivalent Coalition and Greens supporters do – even if they’ll never really change their vote.

So what does it all mean? Well, in practical terms, the evidence suggests that the Greens will have a fight on their hands to maintain their current vote share with so many soft and swinging voters appearing to make up a large part of their new found primary vote – particularly if (or rather when) the major parties pivot their message to try and get them back as we approach the election. As the Nielsen preference data has suggested, because increasing numbers of them are ex-Coalition voters, the Greens may have to fight on two very different and often politically incompatible fronts to defend them.

Without the media exposure of the major parties, that will prove to be a very, very difficult exercise.

It also suggests that Tony Abbott has boosted the generic fortunes of the Coalition by boosting the generic confidence that Coalition voters have in their party – adding more evidence to the argument that the changes in things like preferred PM and much of the approval dynamics are actually being driven more by partisan endogeneity rather than anything particularly meaningful, nor electorally very important.