The state polling drought and what it means for interpreting political events

There has been very little state polling of voting intention over the last 2 years – and that leaves us vulnerable to false media narratives.

A break from energy this week.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a notable decline in the number of opinion polls measuring voting intention. It may be because media companies can no longer afford to commission polling or because of the failure of federal polls to indicate a Coalition victory at the 2019 federal election. Either way, there have been far fewer polls published.

This is particularly pronounced at the state level, where there have been extremely long periods without any voter intention polling whatsoever.* The most egregious examples:

  • Victoria has had no polling at all since the state election 19 months ago
  • New South Wales has had no polling at all since the state election 15 months ago
  • Western Australia has had no polling at all in 22 months – this is despite the next state election being nine months away.

Polling has been only slightly more frequent in two other states:

  • Queensland had two polls in 2019 and has had two polls in 2020 so far. That is very sparse for a state heading into a competitive election in just four months time.
  • South Australia has had one poll in each of 2019 and 2020.

Tasmania is the only state that has had consistent voter intention polling, with five polls in 2019 and one in 2020 so far (I highly recommend reading the Poll Bludger for regular updates on political polling in Australia ).

Of course, polling has its limitations. Polls are a snapshot of voter sentiment at a fixed point in time (it is not a forecast); a pollster’s methodologies can affect a poll’s sample and in turn the results; if pollsters conduct polling but only release the results selectively, the public can get a distorted view of voter sentiment; and of course, it is foolish to place too much emphasis on just one poll.

But polling is a useful tool that has a really, really important role in political discussion: it acts as a reality check on the commentaries of political pundits, halting questionable media narratives and spurring new ones.

Let’s consider this in the context of Victoria, where there has been no polling since the state election in November 2018.

Victorian Labor had a gigantic election victory in 2018 – the polls showed a close race 6 months out but as the election drew closer Labor’s lead in the polls increased, especially from September. The polls in the last couple of weeks of the campaign in November indicated a comfortable Labor victory – in fact, Labor ended up winning by an even greater margin than the polls indicated.

(See this excellent piece by journalist Noel Towell two days before the state election, which demonstrates the importance of polling that showed the Coalition losing ground, countering the narrative given to the media by Coalition operatives “that everything was going great”.)

Polls are obviously valuable in the weeks leading up to an election by providing an indication of the sort of result we can expect. But conclusions drawn from election results are carried over into the next term of parliament by the media and political pundits. The narrative developed in the immediate aftermath of the Victorian state election continues to influence media and political commentary today, without any more recent polling to challenge or confirm it.

The decisiveness of Labor’s victory in 2018 quickly lead to a general consensus amongst the media and political class regarding the explanation for the victory, which goes something like this: 

  • Labor is building infrastructure at a faster rate than any government in the state’s recent political history and voters approve.
  • Voters care a lot less about government scandals and corruption than they do about a government delivering services and building infrastructure.
  • The Coalition’s campaign was doomed by its narrow, tough-on-crime agenda, while Matthew Guy’s meeting with an alleged mafia figure shredded his credibility (‘lobster with a mobster‘ is still the catchiest name for a political scandal I have heard).
  • Voters like can-do Dan Andrews with his direct, relatable and (perceived) honest communication.
  • The dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister a few months before the state election dragged down support for the Coalition in Melbourne, where Turnbull was especially popular.

This narrative has continued to inform political and media commentary in Victoria over the last 19 months.

But how much of this narrative still holds true? 

Eventually, when the next poll does come, media commentators will posit a range of explanations for any movement (or non-movement). But the most recent baseline with which this future poll can be compared will be the election of November 2018. They say a week is a long time in politics; well 19 months is an eternity.

This matters. Understanding how voters respond to political events affects how political parties develop their strategies and tactics, how they fight elections, how the media choose to cover political events and in the long-term, how we understand and remember history.

Let’s consider Victoria again: what if the overwhelming reason Labor did so well at the state election was due to the removal of Prime Minister Turnbull? Perhaps if a poll had been conducted in early 2019 after more time had passed, Labor’s support would have been much lower. 

And what was the effect of COVID-19? What was Labor’s support like in February 2020, before the s*** hit the fan? Was the government in a strong or weak position? And since then, has COVID-19 strengthened Labor’s position or weakened it? Was the government doing okay in early June before the recent political scandals hit? Did these scandals cause a reduction in support for the government or did they barely register? Regular polling is the only way we can attempt to answer these questions empirically.

But now it is too late; these questions are now impossible to answer empirically. So much has happened over the last 19 months that there are a whole host of different explanations that might be true.

When the next poll comes, all we will have is the subjective interpretations of the media and political pundits to untangle these factors and explain any rise or fall in support for either party. And that is a tragedy. 

People often criticise poll-driven media narratives but the problem has never been the polls themselves; rather it is how the media and political class have chosen to use and interpret them.

Polls, interpreted accurately, are the best tools we have to measure voter sentiment between elections. And they are certainly a heck of a lot more credible than press gallery commentary based upon conversations with political party operatives, other journalists and a few vox pops.

So when the next state poll is eventually released, beware of any commentator who clings too strongly to a particular narrative. With no polling for so long in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, drawing conclusions from the next poll will be fraught with uncertainty. So keep an open mind and be prepared that a whole host of explanations may be true.

And hope that we won’t have to wait another 19 months for the next poll.

For more information about opinion polling, I highly recommend the Poll Bludger and Kevin Bonham’s blog.

* No, polls of premier approval ratings definitely don’t count. Approval rating polling has some value but it is no substitute for voting intention polling.

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