Three federal opinion polls this week offered something for everybody, with Labor taking a hit in Newspoll, extending its lead in Morgan, and staying put in Essential Research. But those who think Newspoll has it in for Labor should take a closer look at the numbers.

The Newspoll and Morgan results inspired much theorising on social media about which pollster was rigging its results in whose favour. However, the discrepancy becomes a lot less mysterious if we look beneath the surface of the headline figures and consider the results in a longer-term context.

As usual, it was Newspoll that commanded the lion’s share of media attention, with the fortnightly result in Tuesday’s Australian showing the Coalition up four to 40% while Labor fell two to 34% — only marginally better than its disastrous primary vote result at last year’s election. For a sense of how this looked to many Labor partisans, try logging on to Twitter and running a search on “Newspoll” and “Murdoch”.

What such observers often miss is that shifts of this kind are as much a reflection of the previous poll as the current one, and a big part of the story here was that Newspoll’s earlier result had clearly flattered Labor. As I noted here at the time, Newspoll had been the only one of six active polling agencies that failed to record a roughly 2-point improvement for the Coalition in the wake of the MH17 disaster, and the latest numbers merely served to correct that anomaly.

Furthermore, the blow for Labor was considerably softened on two-party preferred by a strong showing for the Greens, whose 13% rating compares with an election result of 8.7%. This left Labor maintaining a lead of 52-48, down from 54-46 a fortnight ago.

The tinfoil hat brigade were particularly keen to point to Morgan as evidence of Newspoll’s mendacity, as the headline to its poll release the previous day had read “ALP increases its lead over L-NP (56%:44%)”. However, its numbers weren’t nearly as far out of line with Newspoll as this suggested.

“This week’s numbers have [Abbott] recovering his lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister. But in truth, this isn’t much of an accomplishment …”

Morgan’s headine two-party figures are determined by asking minor party and independent voters how they planned to direct their preferences, a measure that in recent times has become particularly favourable to Labor. The more orthodox two-party measure, as used by Newspoll, distributes preferences according to how they flowed at the previous election — which, counter-intuitive as it may seem, usually gives a more reliable result.

On this metric, Morgan had Labor’s lead at a more modest 54-46, which was unchanged on its result a fortnight ago. Nor should the 2-point gap between Newspoll and Morgan surprise us, as Morgan is typically a point or two more favourable to Labor than other pollsters. By the same token, it is fairly typical of Newspoll to undercook Labor a little on the primary vote while overstating the Greens, and for the two to cancel each other out on two-party preferred.

The other poll to report this week was the regular weekly Essential Research. Using a fortnightly rolling average, Essential is less prone to sudden movements than other pollsters, and that was certainly the way of it this week, with both major parties unchanged on the primary vote and Labor’s two-party lead steady at 51-49. This was reflected in the BludgerTrack poll aggregate, as updated weekly on my blog The Poll Bludger, which has drifted only half a point over two weeks to put Labor’s current lead at 51.7-48.3

One point on which the pollsters were singing from the same song sheet related to the leaders’ personal ratings, for which new figures emerged from Newspoll and Essential Research. Both reinforced an impression of an ongoing post-MH17 recovery for Tony Abbott, who badly needed it after the mauling he copped in the wake of the budget.

The charts below shows the trend in the two leaders’ personal ratings since the election, with Abbott’s net satisfaction rating having improved at least ten points from its nadir, while still leaving him well short of his none-too-impressive rating before the budget.

Still more encouragingly for Abbott, this week’s numbers have him recovering his lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister. But in truth, this isn’t much of an accomplishment — as psephologist Kevin Bonham has calculated, a long-term average shows an incumbent can typically expect to lead the opposition leader by 16%, as compared with Abbott’s present lead of 2.4%.

Meanwhile, Bill Shorten appears to be in a stable condition, with a net approval rating of around minus 5%. In the past six months or so, the only disturbance to Shorten’s numbers has been a brief surge in his favour immediately after the budget.

Historically speaking, this is nothing to write home about, with the long-term average for opposition leaders being just a shade in the negative. However, it’s better than he might have been fearing since his early honeymoon ratings evaporated over the holiday season — a shift that had some invoking the spectre of Simon Crean. It should certainly be sufficient to keep him secure in his position, at least for as long as Labor remains competitive or better on voting intention.