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Apr 2, 2012

Richardson: opinion polling for beginners

Once we get into the second half of a government's term and people start taking the opinion polls seriously.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

It seems we have to go through this every three years. Once we get into the second half of a government’s term and people start taking the opinion polls seriously, they seem to forget everything they learnt in the previous cycle. So each poll has to be invested with huge meaning on its own, independent of any sort of trend or context.

So let’s review some basics. Start with Peter Brent (who now blogs for The Australian), explaining things in the 2007 Crikey election guide:

“If news items were given the emphasis they deserve, political polls would [be on] say, around page eight … But opinion polls cost a bomb to produce, so onto page one they must go. Then everyone must pretend that’s where they belong, adding several hundred words of interpretation — turning them over, looking for meaning, interpreting them as good or bad for someone or other, pretending you can identify why the numbers move over a fortnight.

“Don’t get excited about a dramatic movement in any single opinion poll.

“Each is just an imprecise dip in the ocean. Wait for another, and then another.”

Because polls are proprietary products, newspapers tout their own rather than the competitors’, although the most sensible results come from averaging several different polls. If you want to really understand what’s happening you need to look at the trend, since any one poll on its own is basically meaningless. And obviously (but this story is all about people who ignore even the blindingly obvious), polls become more useful as you get closer to an election.

Fairfax is probably the worst offender, because its poll, by AC Nielsen, comes out the most infrequently — today’s is the first for five weeks. As by now you’ve no doubt heard, it’s bad for Labor. But lack of frequency doesn’t make a poll any more accurate, and even taken in conjunction with a similarly bad Newspoll last week, it doesn’t really justify the avalanche of commentary.

To see why, look at Nielsen’s trend lines. (Don’t look at the big red and blue numbers beside them, because they’re wrong — two-party-preferred should be 43-57, not 47-53.) The red line, showing two-party-preferred vote, shows a gradual but sustained improvement from Labor’s low point in the middle of last year. Yet pundits seem in denial about this simple fact.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s entirely possible that the past few days of polling are the first sign that the trend has kicked into reverse. But it’s also possible that they represent just a temporary Queensland-induced blip that will wash out in the next round or two of polls. We don’t know — and on the basis of only one poll (even one from each pollster) we can’t possibly know.

Five years ago we had the opposite problem. The polls showed the opposition consistently ahead by huge margins: Nielsen in March 2007 put them at 61% to 39%. Yet most pundits gave them short shrift; they were bewitched by John Howard’s comebacks from behind in 2001 and 2004, and remained convinced that he might be able to do it again. The Australian in particular conducted a fierce campaign of disinformation to deny the conclusions of its own polls.

But looking at the trend explained the difference. In early 2001 Howard was well behind, but he was making up ground; in 2004 the polls were erratic. In 2007, however, the trend line flattened out with Labor well ahead, and sure enough, although things tightened a little during the campaign, that’s the way it turned out.

Alert readers will already have noticed a problem with the dates in this story. 2001, 2004, 2007 — we have three-year terms, so the next election is in 2013. So why are we obsessing about this now?

That’s the other big problem with today’s coverage — it completely fails to convey the fact that we’re still some 17 months away from voting, and that there is plenty of time for a lot of things to change.

Michael Gordon does mention this morning that the trend (on the assumption that today’s result is just a “blip”) showed “a recovery that could see Labor competitive if it continued until polling day.” But in reality if you just project the trend in a linear fashion (a simplistic way to do it, but Fairfax is in no position to accuse anyone else of being simplistic) it would have Labor not just “competitive” by late next year but in line for a landslide victory.

Similarly Michelle Grattan on Friday drew all her comparisons with 2001, when the proper yardstick would be 2000. At that point, Howard’s polls weren’t awful — they turned really toxic in the second half of that year, when the GST implementation proved to be a disaster.

If implementation of the carbon price is that bad, Julia Gillard will be in trouble. If it goes relatively well, she’ll have ample time to turn things around. Or any number of other things, good or bad, could happen to upset calculations.

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11 thoughts on “Richardson: opinion polling for beginners

  1. Modus Ponens

    When folks net pay cheques come in from 1 July higher than what they were the week before, all the hysteria should probably drop away a fair bit. Then there will be another year at least until the election…

  2. Modus Ponens

    Oh, and no one seems to comment on how T.Abbott is less preferred as PM than Gillard…

    Look forward to the spotlight one day being on the opposition as much as it is on the government.

  3. michael r james

    “So why are we obsessing about this now?”

    Obviously because the media is obsessing about it now….and constantly. It would be bad enough if it were just the Murdoch press which controls 70% of the print media. But it is also Fairfax. And the ABC. This morning on every ABC radio news bulletin I heard (half asleep, all the better to unconsciously induce these factoids into the populace…) actually led with the polls that would result in “obliteration of federal Labor if an election were tomorrow”. That this is considered within the definition of “news” is the outrage. The fact that they always lead their bulletins with this “news” is another (like Charles says, in the press this stuff should be relegated to page 8, or in Private Eye fashion, page 98; on News programs it is highly arguable that such popularity ratings should be reported at all.) I’ll bet the nightly TV news and the constant babble on News24 will do so today. I can hardly bring myself to watch 7.30 (Report) tonight because you can bet your house that they will spend ten minutes on it, and probably again on Q&A and again on Lateline.

    The only glimmer of hope that reality might still override this obsession is that the 2007 attempt by News Ltd to talk the polls around –heroic or clownish efforts of Shanahan–didn’t work. Though who knows what percent of shift back to the Coalition it caused?

  4. Mike Flanagan

    Thanks Richard.
    That is the first honest analysis of the relevance(irrelevance) of the
    polls that we are subjected to by the MSM commentatriat. Most
    should be printed on the back pages of the Business Section but they
    do appear to be used as justification of the political shallowness
    displayed by once respect Political Correspondents and Editors.

  5. Mike Flanagan

    Re previous post , Meant C RichardSON, my apologies to the auther.

    Mike R James
    You are so right in your comments. The only poll I give some credence to is the last poll before election day. How often have we observed a change in ‘trend ‘ suddenly
    detected in News Poll days before an election. This I suspect is an
    effort to justify their polling.
    I also suspect that the polls understandably using the last election prefernce
    trends maybe subject to review for the next election. The volatility
    and confusion in the electorate may be indicating a similar volatility in the usual distribution of preferences. We could be subject to minority governments in the
    federal sphere for some time. I personallly believe that would be a
    very appropriate trend for this nation.

  6. Meski

    @Modus: Well, he’s less preferred than any given leader. If the no-alition could convince the Lorax to stand, he’d be more preferred than Abbott.

    Labor’s popularity (federally) still isn’t at the toxic level Howard achieved prior to getting the boot. And it likely won’t reach that level.

  7. zut alors

    Michael R J,

    I echo every word of your 1.45pm post. Maybe all is not lost as ABC Qld have just led their evening news bulletin with the Burma election and the Fiji floods. False hope for poll-overdosed viewers?

  8. AR

    The vox pop has never been worth a pinch of the proverbial as it depends on the last loud voice they heard.
    “There’s only one poll that counts …” and that is 18 months away.
    If the ALP is to be defeated, why not spend those months, you know, doin’ stuff?
    Who knows, maybe the electorate will be so impressed they’ll vote their approval!

  9. Meski

    @AR (again:) I don’t vote approval, but disapproval, and the coalition has a greater disapproval (for me) than Labor. It’ll probably end up with Greens and independents near top, as I disapprove of them least. They’ve at least managed to stop the excesses of a government with a simple majority in upper and lower houses. If you must vote coalition, don’t vote coalition in upper house, to discourage Tony from doing a double dissolution.

  10. AR

    Meski – you seem to have misunderstood mine above. I was referring to the great mass of lumpen, unwashed, barely sentient.
    In the Reps. I vote Green, Indie (unless raving nutters like gun-nuts, Xtian or racist/Lib fronts) then, with shaking pen (I never use the supplied pencil), decide who to put last – 2nd last being ALP, with nose firmly held and sphincter clenched.
    In the Senate, unlike 97%+ of the sheeple, I assiduously vote below the line – takes a while but, hey, it’s only once every coupla years! What else ya gonna do?