The latest Essential Research survey shows the Coalition’s two-party vote steady on 53-47, while also pointing to a continuing drift away from Labor who for the second week in a row have shed a point on the primary vote, now at 35 per cent. The Greens have gained a point to 11 per cent, with the Coalition steady on 46 per cent. Essential’s monthly personal rating questions find approval for Julia Gillard at a new low of 37 per cent (down four points on March) with disapproval at a new high of 50 per cent (up four points). This puts her in very similar terrain to Tony Abbott, down two on approval to 36 per cent and up one on disapproval to 48 per cent. Gillard’s lead as preferred prime minister is down from 44-33 to 42-33. Further questions looked at “reason for budget deficit”, measures which should be taken to restore it (63 per cent favour “increase taxes for big corporations”), Tony Abbott’s welfare proposal (reaction a bit more hostile than I might have thought) and perceptions of the difference between Labor and the Greens.

Also made available to the public last week were results from the Australian Election Study for the 2010 election, an ongoing academic endeavour which targets a sample of about 2000 respondents after each election with questions on voting intention, issue stances, party identification, personal background and media use. You can access the result by registering with the Australian Social Science Data Archive, and having done so can probably waste days on end running cross-tabulations to investigate your pet theories about why the election played out the way it did. This is done through the internet and by mailout, and while biases are introduced by the survey’s reliance on self-completion, its aggregate results reasonably approximate reality: Labor 41 per cent (38.0 per cent at the election), the Coalition 44.5 per cent (43.6 per cent) and the Greens on 9.5 per cent (11.8 per cent).

Among other things, respondents are asked to rank various election issues as of high, middling or no importance. The changes in these from the 2007 to 2010 elections make terrific reading for the Coalition. Scholars of political communications and electoral behaviour are very keen on the principle of “issue ownership”, and the need for political parties to place the issues they own high on the agendas of the media and the public. In 2007, John Howard paid dearly for the salience of industrial relations and environmental issues. Environment and global warming were respectively rated as highly important by 59 per cent and 51 per cent, respondents in the respective categories splitting 64-36 and 68-32 to Labor. Fifty-one per cent nominated industrial relations as of high importance, and although you might expect this to account for both pro- and anti-union positions, these respondents split 65-35 for Labor.

In 2010, concern for all three of these measures went through the floor: environment down to 42 per cent, global warming to 30 per cent and industrial relations to 28 per cent. However, whereas the Labor vote was actually higher than in 2007 among those concerned about the environment (65-35) and global warming (72-28), they slackened from 65-35 to 60-40 among those concerned about industrial relations. The pattern of industrial relations was reflected to a smaller extent by a 2007 Rudd showpiece, education, which was rated as very important by 69 per cent in 2007 and 62 per cent in 2010, with Labor’s lead on the issue falling from 59-41 to 56-44. The highest rated issue overall was health and Medicare, rated very important by 76 per cent, and on which Labor’s lead slipped from 58-42 to 53-47.

In each issue category noted so far, Labor held the lead. Where the election was nearly lost was economic management: not included as a distinct category in the 2007 survey, in 2010 it came second to health and Medicare with a highly important rating of 74 per cent. This three-quarters of the electorate favoured the Coalition 53-47, such that the remaining quarter had to break 63-37 Labor’s way for the ledger to be evened. The Coalition’s other leads related to other economic issues and immigration. The latter issue gained salience compared with the 2007 election; the only other issue measured both times was, for some reason, the Labor-friendly issue of unemployment.

Health and Medicare 76% 0% 53% -5%
Education 62% -7% 56% -3%
Unemployment 45% 6% 55% -2%
Interest Rates 43% 1% 48% -5%
Environment 42% -17% 65% 1%
Taxation 39% 1% 46% -2%
Population Policy 36% 5% 46% -3%
Global warming 30% -21% 72% 4%
Industrial Relations 28% -23% 60% -5%
Economic Management 74% 47%
Refugees/Asylum Seekers 38% 46%
Resources Tax 32% 45%

The next thing I found noteworthy concerned the matter of religious observance. The chart below shows the primary vote share in 2004, 2007 and 2010 for two categories of person: those who never engage in formal religious observance of any kind and those who do, however rarely (“less than once a year” inclusive). From Mark Latham to Kevin Rudd, the Labor vote among observers shot up by 9 per cent, about 1.5 per cent higher than the increase among non-observers. But with an atheist back in the Labor leadership in 2010, their primary vote among the former group slumped to only two points higher than it had been under Latham, whereas support among non-observers held firm.

Finally, something I’m not entirely sure what to make of. The following chart breaks down the primary vote according to when respondents say they decided how to vote. This tells a counter-intuitive story of the Coalition having it all over Labor among those deciding a long time before the election, with other punters breaking for Labor in increasing numbers up to and including on polling day. The chart also shows that this pattern was not followed in 2007, lest it be surmised that late voters incline to break for Labor due to their tendency to be of lower income and educational attainment. The first thing to be noted about this is that it doesn’t reflect the story told over time by the opinion polls, but this is not to say the findings are incompatible: pollsters rarely get a non-response rate of more than 4 per cent,
so the great majority of late deciders are not so undecided earlier in the piece that they are unable to offer some kind of response. One narrative which might be imposed on the figures is that a great many Labor voters who might have responded with “long time before” had their confidence shaken by the leadership change, but ultimately came home during the campaign.