Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Poll Roundup: Few Signs Of Life For Turnbull Government

2PP Aggregate: 52.8 to Labor (+0.1 since last week)
Labor would comfortably win election "held now"

Firstly, my congratulations to Antony Green, AO!

In our last exciting episode, the Coalition government had launched a Budget widely seen as a blatant attempt to get a polling bounce, and received no immediate return.  So the theory that the Budget would restore the government's standing retreated to the idea that it would take a little while.  Another five weeks down the track the Budget hasn't changed a thing, and nor, in fact, has anything else.

After the rush of polls around Budget time we have since been back to our usual watery diet of weekly Essentials and a Newspoll every two or three weeks.  The last two Newspolls came in at 53:47 to Labor, while Essential's recent run has gone 54-53-52-52-52.  After taking into account the primary votes, I aggregated the recent Newspolls at 53.1 followed by 53.2 to Labor, and the three most recent Essentials as two 52.2s followed by a 51.8.   Overall with all the other pollsters now out of the aggregate again, I get a reading of 52.8 to Labor.  Here's the smoothed tracking graph:


Throughout the year so far there have been little moves back and forth but they may as well be random, especially when they are informed by such a small amount of polling.  The current run of polling feels a lot like the second half of 1995, when the Keating government always seemed vaguely competitive and kept trying things but the dial wouldn't move off 47-48%.  With internal tension never far away, the current government would struggle for clear air even if the voters were listening to what it had to say, and if they were listening they would hear quite a bit of confusion anyway.  How is this bleak situation recoverable, if at all? For now it is not obvious.  Yes polls can change a lot, and sometimes quickly, as we saw in the UK, but it's hard to see what might generate a change in this government's favour.

A story behind the current headlines is a mini-resurgence in the One Nation vote.  Just when it seemed the party had maxed out following the WA election shambles, it has now moved in a few weeks from 5% to 9% in Essential and from 9% up to 11% in Newspoll.  The issues mix, including terrorist attacks and centrist climate noises, has been ideal for Pauline Hanson's party, which I suspect is continuing to be used as a vote-parking lot by disillusioned malcontents (pun intended) on the right.

One Year Behind - Again

We're two weeks away from the first anniversary of the Turnbull government's re-election. A few polls very early in the term were published with 50-50 2PPs, but that was mostly because of the use of 2013 rather than 2016 election preferences.  The government will, barring something very startling in the next two weeks, have trailed in aggregated polling for its entire first year after re-election.

I examined the fate of governments that have trailed for a year at some stage of their term when we reached that milestone under Abbott.  Six of the ten such governments (including Abbott's) have been re-elected, two of them ditching their PM at the time to do so.  However it is highly unusual for a government to trail for a whole year immediately after being re-elected.  In the past even the most helpless governments have tended to bob above the 50-50 line for the first few months of their term before sinking.  Possibly the Menzies governments of 1951-4 and 1961-3 (both of which were in the end returned) trailed straight out of the blocks, but there was not enough polling to say.

Leaderships and issue polling

The most recent Newspoll delivered more bad news for Prime Minister Turnbull.  He finally poked his head above a net rating of -20 last time, only to sink back to -23 (32-55) this week.  Curiously, Bill Shorten polled exactly the same result.  This is the third time in Newspoll history this has happened, with both previous cases involving Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in 2011.  Turnbull continues to enjoy a much larger "better Prime Minister" lead over Bill Shorten (44-31) than the 2PP polling or his poor personal ratings would predict.  This seems to be partly because he polls unusually well (or perhaps just as pertinently, Bill Shorten polls rather badly) on the matchup among Greens voters.  Essential this week had Shorten ahead just 35-31 among them.

Essential had Turnbull's net rating up to -9 (36-45), his best since November, with Shorten on the same (34-43), which is his best since January.  Essential gave Turnbull a lead of 39-26 as better PM over Shorten.

Essential asked how the Budget had sunk in for voters and the Others voters on their panel (who are mostly One Nation) were notably even more hostile about it than Labor or Greens voters.

There has been some new polling about energy policy, one novel point of which was that it wasn't commissioned by the Australia Institute.  In general renewable/clean energy polling struggles to get past the pony-poll stage in which voters instinctively react positively in a way that then fails to predict their political behaviour.  Essential found that voters said they would on average put up with a 5% price rise to reduce carbon emissions and invest in "new energy supply", but that few would accept 10%.  Newspoll found that voters lean slightly towards an increase on the government's current renewable energy target, except for One Nation voters who lean slightly towards decreasing or scrapping it.  Another Newspoll question showed strong (48-22) opposition to following the United States out of the Paris Agreement, but I am sure the response would have been more equivocal had Donald Trump not been named in the preamble.

A couple of new commissioned seat polls with voting intention results.  The Australia Institute's ReachTEL of Kooyong had the Liberals on 48.9% (-9.3 compared to election), Labor 25.5 (+5.7), Green 17.0 (-1.9), One Nation 3.9 (didn't stand) and Others 4.8, after redistributing the undecided.  The 2PP based on respondent preferences was 56-44 to Josh Frydenberg (6.6% swing to ALP) and I get 56.2 by national last-election preferences.

Finally, a poll, which I presume to be a robopoll, for the long-established but low-profile WAOP outfit, had Christian Porter losing the seat of Pearce with a 52.2% 2PP result against him, a 5.8% swing.  It's not even stated how the 2PP is calculated and the merging of "other" with "unsure" doesn't help, but I'm suspecting it's a respondent-preferences result, because last-election preferences would be about two points worse.  There is really no past form on which to gauge how accurate WAOP is and more details of this poll should have been released. The poll was commissioned by Campaign Capital, a Labor-connected PR and government relations firm.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The UK And Australian Elections Weren't That Similar

Last week the UK had its second straight surprising election result.  In 2015 an expected cliffhanger turned into an easy win for the Conservatives while in 2017 an expected landslide turned into a cliffhanger.  The government went to the polls three years early (that's a whole term over here), supposedly in search of a strong mandate for its position on Brexit, yet came away with fewer seats than it went in with.  The real motive seemed to be to turn a big lead in the polls into a bigger majority, and if that was the aim then it backfired spectacularly.

In the wake of this result the Australian commentariat have put out several articles that seek to stress parallels with Australian politics.  The primary themes of these articles are as follows: that Malcolm Turnbull is Theresa May and that Anthony Albanese is Jeremy Corbyn.

Let's start with the Turnbull-May comparison.  Turnbull has no hope of winning the battle of perceptions on this one, because it's the kind of analogy many of those who consume political chatter will congratulate themselves on having thought of first.  But on a factual basis, the comparison is twaddle.

Exhibit one: Mark Kenny.  I frequently disagree with Kenny's articles but this one seems to have hit a new low in lazy pseudo-political fantasy clickbait.  Mr Kenny claims that "Initial popularity had seen both PMs opt for early elections and bizarrely extended campaigns".   The first part of the sentence is the silliest, because Turnbull infamously chose not to go to a significantly early election at a time when his popularity was greatest.  By the time Malcolm Turnbull called the election, his Newspoll net satisfaction rating had already fallen to -11, having been as high as +38 five months earlier, and his party had crashed from 54-46 aggregate leads to around about 50-50.

The reason the Coalition under Turnbull chose a "bizarrely extended campaign" was that - largely as a result of the Abbott administration's inaction on Senate reform - the Coalition was left with no other way to go to a double dissolution using a non-ridiculous Senate voting system.  Probably the Coalition were also getting ahead of themselves in their hopes for the election result, but still the length of the campaign had nothing to do with Malcolm Turnbull's supposed popularity.

In May's case, the campaign wasn't "bizarrely extended".  The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for a total of 25 working days (and typically hence 10 weekend days) between the dissolution of parliament and the holding of the election.  The extra two weeks (depending on when the campaign is counted as starting) arose from the formalities involved in having an election triggered by a parliamentary vote, the outcome of which is unknown for sure until it happens.

In Australia's case, the election wasn't even all that early, coming three months shy of a three year term.  Indeed, four of the five previous new federal governments had had shorter first terms than that.

Kenny goes on to argue that both May and Turnbull succumbed to "hubris", underestimating their opponents, and that "In each case the longer the campaign period dragged on, the less compelling became their case for another term. And the stronger grew their respective opponents."  This is a fair cop as concerns May and her advisors, but in Australia's case, aggregated polling shows that there was no trend away from the Coalition during the campaign.  In fact, the Coalition gained about half a point in aggregated polling around the midpoint of the campaign.

Another line of comparison comes from right-wing commentators such as Jennifer Oriel and Andrew Bolt and is basically that both the Tories in the UK and the Coalition in Australia struggled because they were too centrist.  (And also because they both ran Crosby-Textor campaigns and hence allowed their campaign strategy to be fouled by same-sex marriage juice, or something.)

If the Tories in the UK in 2017 paid the price for being too centrist, then why did they reap such a reward in 2015 under the similarly moderate administration of David Cameron?  And if they were too centrist all along, why was their polling sky-high in the first place?  And if Australians were secretly begging for more of that old Tony Abbott magic, where was this desire in almost two years of persistently poor polling leading up to Abbott being given the boot?  It makes more sense to me to lay the blame for the bad Tory result on the many obvious mistakes made during the campaign - and if the methods of Crosby and Textor were among them, that might just mean voters are getting sick of being bludgeoned and herded with cynically abstract three-word slogans.

For Albo equals Corbyn, the usual suspects include Troy Bramston and Peter Hartcher (actually,  Hartcher's article reads pretty well, at least in comparison with Kenny's piece.) Bramston starts by telling us that both have "often voted against the majority position at party conferences".  He neglects to mention that Corbyn has, spectacularly often, voted against his party's position in parliament.  Admittedly, party discipline in the UK is less strong than in Australia, but Albanese is ultimately a party man through and through while Corbyn had become a fringe figure until (and even after) his support base swamped his party's leadership process.

Albanese does have an authenticity-perception edge over Shorten, but I don't for a moment buy that he is so radical a lefty that he sits outside an ALP-leader mainstream that includes Hawke, Keating and even (jeepers) Gough.  He is politics more or less as usual, albeit with a bleeding heart on its sleeve.  Corbyn's very election as leader prompted internal war within UK Labour.  If Albo became leader of the ALP, the Australian party machine would just shrug and get on with its job, and the ALP's factional processes would carry on largely as normal.

That Albanese would have some of Corbyn's appeal to the youth vote is not hard to see.  But in Australia, where voting is compulsory and many young Green-supporting voters are polarised against the Coalition automatically, it just isn't that big a deal.

So what does it mean for Australia? Anything?

For sure, the bad Tory campaign played a major role in their plummet from supposed 20+ point polling leads just after the campaign started to roughly 6-point leads at the end, which turned into only a 2.5-point margin on polling day.  (Many but not all pollsters overestimated the Tory margin all along, mainly because of incorrect turnout modelling).

However, the result serves as a lesson about what polls are telling us between elections.  When pollsters ask a voter who they would vote for if an election was proverbially held "right now", the voter is not factoring in their reaction to the calling of an early election.  The sense of being dragged to the polls, the several weeks of politicking and the suspicion that the government has something to hide, are all not factored in to a generic polling response halfway through a government's term.  The voter is really saying who they think they might vote for at the next election at this stage.  Governments that call snap elections without planning for them over several months are not always well-prepared for what they are doing, either.  The voter is not being asked "If the government called an election today and then spent the next month and a half in blunder mode, who would you vote for?"

At the time the election was triggered, the May government's lead had been in double figures for about eight months and was steadily increasing.  Something similar was seen in Australia in the 1984 campaign.  The 1984 campaign was not as long as is widely believed, and nor was it as gratuitously early as the UK's (see Malcolm Farnsworth's piece on the 1984 myths).  However, it started with a similar scenario: an incumbent government with a nearly 20-point polling lead, facing an Opposition Leader with spectacularly poor personal ratings (Andrew Peacok's net satisfaction had crashed to -47).  By election day, following personal distractions for Bob Hawke on the campaign trail, Labor's primary vote lead had crunched to a similar extent and Peacock's personal ratings had staged the biggest surge Australian politics has ever seen.  Labor still won reasonably easily, but an election has a remarkable way of contracting a mid-term polling bounce or surge.

This is important because it has been very common for people to argue that Kevin Rudd should have forced an early election over climate change in 2009 while way ahead in the polls, and that Turnbull should have gone to the polls in late 2015.  Both, supposedly, would have won in a canter.  Had Theresa May won the landslide that her early polling implied, the lesson for Australia would have been that Turnbull should have gone early too.

What the UK result more likely tells us is that had Turnbull rushed to an election before voters had much idea how he would govern as Prime Minister, with the displacement of Tony Abbott still fresh and with no particular reason to do it other than that he was way ahead in the polls, he may have been in for a nasty surprise.  Right-wing conservatives were disappointed with the result Turnbull eventually achieved but whether the Coalition could have done much better by any means after two years of Tony Abbott's strange combination of inaction and farce should now be a more open question.

As for the role of Opposition Leaders, much is being said about how well Jeremy Corbyn did, but some of that is relative to expectations.  Suppose someone got in a time machine and went back to 2015, and told Labour (before they picked their new leader) that in two years David Cameron would be gone and his successor would call an election three years early.  Suppose they also told Labour that in that election his successor would patronise cosmopolitan voters, issue a dud manifesto and not even show up to the leadership debates.  Labour's expectations might be a bit higher than just a narrow loss after hearing all of that.  A more boring normal leader wouldn't have won the youth vote by anything like as much and wouldn't have made such a massive polling gain in the campaign, but wouldn't have started so far behind to begin with.

I think it's just another example of Opposition Leaders and even Opposition internal antics generally not mattering all that much to voters.  A recent article used the Australian National Election Study to outline a claim that Bill Shorten cost his party 0.9% 2PP, but I'll be waiting for the fine detail on this one.  Using Newspoll net satisfaction ratings instead of whatever ANES data was used by Clive Bean, I get a similar estimate for supposed Shorten damage (0.55%), but I also get Opposition Leader ratings explaining only 4% of variation in election outcomes.  It's quite likely on that basis - and also given that between elections Opposition Leader ratings have almost nothing to do with voting intentions - that there's really not that much to see.  Elections are mainly about governments, and Opposition Leaders are rarely unelectable, and rarer still unstoppable.

The most surprising takeaway of both the UK and the US elections for me was the extent to which mass-participation votes actually worked in selecting a leader, given that those who take part in them are by definition unusually politically active.  Both Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn were selected by populist revolts against their party's normal style, resulting in massive internal turmoil.  Both seemed to have hacked the popular vote method of selecting leaders - Trump through his massive media profile advantage and Corbyn simply because it was so easy to sign up and start voting.  A system that allows cult and fringe candidates to rise to the top should increase the risk of a leader being unelectable, but both Trump and Corbyn were electorally competitive.   In Australia, Labor's leadership ballot system seems inflexible (why is it so hard to remove the leader even when in Opposition?) but maybe that all really isn't going to make that much difference.  Perhaps one day it will cause a massive and protracted fight within the ALP - which the voters will just go on to ignore.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Modelling The Queensland Election Off The Senate Election And Polling

For most aspects of the Queensland state election, we can use the usual modelling tools: the pendulum, two-party preferred polling, seat win probabilities based on expected margins and so on.  Whoever wins the two-party preferred vote by a substantial margin should win the election, while if the 2PP vote is very close there might be a hung parliament, but won't necessarily be.

The difficult modelling task is to try to work out what seat share the high One Nation vote in recent state polling converts to.  If the One Nation vote share keeps falling, this will soon be a non-issue.  But for the time being, let's assume it doesn't.  It's also worth having a look at whether the Greens have any chance of winning seats in a state where they have yet to win a state seat in their own right.

In the previous instalment, I reckoned that Pauline Hanson's One Nation's current level of polled state-election support in Queensland (17%) probably wouldn't be good for all that many seats.  I suggested that if the current primary vote levels were applied to the seats as they stood in 2001 (ie as swings from the 1998 election, One Nation's last big success), 17% would only have been good for about three or four seats.