Stirring the possum

December 13, 2007

I’m a little hesitant about pursuing my disagreement with Possum over election analysis and/or prediction any further. I don’t want to have a running feud with Possum. For one thing, I have better things to do. For another, I have a lot of regard for Possum’s work generally and don’t wish us to become enemies. For a third, who cares, really? The election’s over, we’re both happy with the result, what does it matter? So I will confine myself to the following:

The purpose of analysis of electoral behaviour during an election campaign should be to answer the question: “what is going on out there?” Possum and I, like all election commentators, live in an elite bubble. We can never think like a floating voter in Mackay or Para Hills. So we use various forms of intellectual endeavour to try to understand what those people are thinking and feeling. We can then use the insights we thus gain to enlighten our readers (assuming we have any).

“Predicting the result,” in terms of guessing how many seats the two sides will win and which seats will change hands, is a parlour game. It’s lots of fun for players and spectators, but of no real significance, certainly not compared with trying to understand what the Australian people are thinking and feeling about the choices put before them by the parties. It is, of course, of some political significance whether the result is going to be (say) a Labor landslide or a cliffhanger. A Rudd government with 100 seats would have been a very different government to a Rudd government with 76 seats. But whether Labor won with 81 seats or 84 seats is of no consequence.

There are several forms of intellectual endeavour which can be used to make useful comments and predictions about the likely outcomes of elections. Analysis of opinion polls is certainly one of them. My own view, however, as I said during the campaign, is that polls are no more than broadly indicative of what is going on. People do NOT always tell the truth to pollsters, and even when they do their answers can be very ambiguous.

The classic example of this was the 1992 British election, in which every poll, including even exit polls, showed Labour winning. But Labour did not win, and it seems that people did indeed lie to pollsters. Traditional Labour voters in England defected to the Tories because (a) they didn’t like Neil Kinnock’s Welsh accent and (b) they wanted Thatcher’s tax cuts. But they were so ashamed at their own prejudice and greed that they told everyone, including pollsters, that would vote Labour. They even told exist pollsters that they had just voted Labour when they hadn’t.

Polling companies that publish their findings to one decimal place, as if it made any difference, and journalists who go into a frenzy about a 1% shift this way or that, as if it was anything but statistical “noise,” do the public a real disservice by fostering the view that polls are far more scientific and meaningful than they really are.

There are other approaches to understanding electoral behaviour and to making predictions about it. One is to try to study it on the ground. I spent the last four weeks of the campaign working in a candidate’s office, in an area far from the inner-city elite suburb where I live. I spent my days talking to voters on the phone, and hearing from the candidate what voters were saying to him on their doorsteps and in shopping centres. From that I learned that working-class voters were genuinely angry about WorkChoices, while middle-class voters were at most “concerned” about climate change, and that if there were going to be very big swings to Labor, they would come from low-income areas and not from middle-class areas.

The insights of history, sociology and political science give us the ability to interrogate opinion poll data rather than just accept them as if they had the same status as, say, meteorological data. If I see a poll which shows a national or state-wide swing large enough for Labor to win Kooyong, I can ask myself: has Labor ever won Kooyong? Answer: no. I can ask: why is this? Is it because all members for Kooyong have been brilliant and all Labor candidates have been idiots? Is it because Kooyong voters are ignorant bigots? And I can answer: No. It’s because Kooyong voters are among the wealthiest, most privileged people in Australia, and they will naturally vote for the party that promises to preserve their wealth and protect their privileges.

If I am faced with a choice between an opinion poll which says that Labor will win Kooyong, and 106 years of history and political science which says they won’t, I will go with the history and the political science, and I will conclude that the poll is wrong, or at least wrongly interpreted. For this I may be scorned as a philistine by devotees of statistical infallibility, but nine times out of ten I will be proved right.

That’s why, when I saw Possum’s table of seats on 30 September, the very first thing I said, before I got into any arguments about statistical methods or whatever (about which I freely concede I know very little), was: “I’m not sure what the purpose of this exercise is when it so obviously defies commonsense and the observations of everyone in the political process.”

The question remains: what was the purpose of producing a table showing that Labor would win Warringah, Kooyong, Higgins, Goldstein and Wannon, when everyone with any knowledge of Australian electoral behaviour and history knew perfectly well that Labor was not going to win any of these seats? If Newspoll had asked 5,000 people in Warringah who they were going to vote for, and if 60% of them had said they were going to vote Labor, that would have been one thing, and even I would probably have had to accept it. But this table was not the result of seat-by-seat polling, it was simply an extrapolation of national polling. This was going a psephological bridge too far, to produce results which were plainly absurd. And the irrefutable proof of that proposition is that Labor didn’t in fact win any of these seats.

Possum has asserted that in publishing this table he wasn’t making any predictions. And I accept this is so, up to a point. When I asked him, he specifically said that he didn’t think Labor would win Kooyong or Warringah. But when I pressed him on more seats on the list, he said: “There is an average 11.6% swing against the government in its safe seats. For that to be wrong, thousands of people would have had to be telling lies to Newspoll over a 9 month period, which I simply do not believe.” So Possum clearly believed that at the time these polls were taken, people in seats like Warringah (margin 11.3%) were intending to vote Labor. Then he said: “For every safe government seat that swings less than the average amount, others in the same category will swing more.”

Now I hate to be pedantic, but the use of the word “will” clearly makes this a predictive statement. We can quibble about whether Possum meant to say “will” rather than “would,” whether his comments were predictive or conditional or whatever. If he says that he didn’t intend that statement to be predictive, I am happy to accept that. But the real question is: if the table was not predictive, what was the point of it? What was the purpose of publishing “a list of seats which a literal interpretation of Newspoll would suggest will fall to Labor, but which I along with all other sensible people know will not.”?

Possum says that I don’t understand much of his argument. He’s quite right. I failed Year 10 maths 39 years ago, and have been saved from total arithmetical incapacity only by the invention of the calculator. My scepticism about the statistical approach to psephology is therefore due in part to my inability to take that approach even if I was so minded. I am nevertheless duly respectful of the black arts of the statistician, of which Possum is clearly a senior initiate.

But, like the blind person who develops an especially acute sense of hearing as compensation, I have developed other ways of understanding the political process, partly through academic work in history and politics and partly through close involvement with politicians (I worked for one for five years) and with election campaigns over a long period of time. As I said earlier, I think this has given me at least as good an ability to make informed comments on, and even predictions about, Australian elections as I would have been able to acquire if I had been more mathematically blessed. It has certainly given me the ability to know an absurd prediction (or non-prediction) when I see one.

I might also say in conclusion that I didn’t realise at the time that Possum’s definition of a “safe” seat was a seat with a margin of more than 6%. This is far too low. Labor won seven Coalition seats with margins above 6% on 24 November, so clearly they weren’t “safe” by any reasonable definition of the word. Seats with margins just above 6% were Herbert, Kalgoorlie and McEwen, all classic marginals. My own tables use the following definitions: 0-4% very marginal, 4-8% marginal, 8-12% fairly safe, 12-16% safe, 16%+ very safe. This difference in definitions meant that we were talking at cross-purposes for much of the time. If Possum had said “There will be an 11.6% swing against the government in seats with margins over 6%” we might have had a different debate.

This will be my last comment on this controversy. I’m sure we all have better ways of spending our time than squabbling over the entrails of this election. The sun is shining, birds are singing, Kevin Rudd is in power and all’s (more or less) right with the world. I have an air-ticket to foreign parts booked for Boxing Day. In the meantime, the detailed returns of the Russian elections are awaiting attention. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and possums.

Polls and prophecies: a post mortem

December 9, 2007

Now that the election is done and dusted, it’s possible to look back and compare the actual results with the voting intentions reported by opinion polls during the course of the year, and with the predictions made by commentators on the basis of those opinion polls. In summary, the verdict is that the level of Labor support on polling day was lower than reported by virtually every opinion poll during 2007, and that consequently the great majority of predictions made by commentators of the election outcome, based on those polls, were wrong.

 Read the full article here.

Looks like a landslide to me

November 25, 2007

In the end, it wasn’t close, and those who tried to beat up a “cliffhanger election” were left looking silly. (Once again, this means you, Murdoch press.) Labor got a two-party swing of 5.5%, which according to the Mackerras pendulum should have delivered a gain of 21 seats. In fact it delivered a gain of 27 (on current figures), since the swing was concentrated in the areas where there were the most seats to be won – Queensland, Sydney and Adelaide.

Most of the gains were typical marginal seats – lower-income suburban or regional seats, most of which Labor has held before. The “doctors wives” failed to deliver, and the Liberals retained Wentworth, North Sydney, Ryan and Boothby (not to mention Kooyong, Goldstein and other improbably suggested gains). The “election night shockers” turned out to be Dawson, Longman and Dickson in Queensland rather than upper-class city seats. (John Howard’s defeat in Bennelong was hardly a shock.) This tells us that the swing was driven largely by “its time” sentiment, WorkChoices, and Queensland pride. Climate change was not the big middle-class vote-flipper many expected.

In October I predicted a 5% swing and 20 Labor gains. I was close to the mark with the swing, but a bit conservative in terms of seats. Of the 20 seats I predicted as Labor gains, I was wrong only about Stirling (La Trobe is too close to call). I failed to predict nine Labor gains: Robertson in NSW, Deakin in Victoria, and Bowman, Dawson, Dickson, Flynn, Leichhardt, Longman and Petrie in Queensland. I also failed to predict that Labor would lose Cowan.

The Senate looks like being Coalition 36, Labor 33, Greens 5, Family First one, Independent one. The Coalition will thus need the support of both Family First’s Steve Fielding and the Independent Nick Xenophon to block Labor legislation. They are not likely to get this very often, so we probably won’t have a double dissolution in 2008.

The Greens did reasonably well, but crucially failed to win the ACT seats as predicted. Family First did badly. The Democrats were wiped out. I correctly predicted that the Democrats would win no Senate seats, and also that no Democrat candidate anywhere would win 5% of the vote. I await Paul Kavanagh’s acknowledgement of this.

Labor landslide, says Brian Costar

November 21, 2007

Former Cabinet Minister Graham Richardson predicts that Labor will win 20 seats on Saturday, which is the same prediction as I made a month ago. I should be flattered, but since I have zero respect for Richardson I’m not. I have a great deal of respect for Professor Brian Costar, who has today predicted a Labor landslide: a 7% swing and a 36-seat gain. Read his arguments here

Five reasons why the Coalition will lose

November 19, 2007

My final election commentary can be seen here

Nielsen poll confirms likely Coalition defeat

November 15, 2007

Tomorrow’s ACNielsen poll has Labor on 54% of the two-party vote, which represents a two-party swing of 6.5% – a heavy Coalition defeat although not quite the rout which some are predicting. This poll was taken after the PM’s policy launch but before Kevin Rudd’s. A poll taken after the Rudd launch would probably have been ever better for Labor. With only a week to go there seems no way out for the Coalition. Particularly since tomorrow’s news will be dominated by damning report (see link in comment below) from the Auditor-General on the Coalition’s rorting of the Regional Partnerships scheme.

Missing in Action: The Narrowing

November 11, 2007

There is no Narrowing –  rather there is a Widening. The latest Newspoll shows a 2% move back to Labor, partly reversing the 5% shift to the Liberals shown over the past two weeks. Each of the four main polling companies’ most recent poll shows a movement to Labor. With only 12 days left, the Coalition is still about 5% short of the two-party vote it needs, as it has been for the last three months. This seems an impossible gap to close when none of the Coalition’s campaign themes seem to be resonating with the swinging voters. Provided Labor makes no serious errors in the remaining two weeks, it is very hard to see how the Coalition can win from here.

See my poll table here.

If the final two-party vote is indeed 55%, that represents a 7.5% swing which will cost the coalition about 30 seats. Of course a Narrowing in the last 12 days is still possible, and I would say likely. I am still confident in my prediction of a 20-seat gain

More bad news, however, for the Coalition in a Galaxy poll showing a 50-50 tie in the seat of Wentworth. If a high-profile Cabinet minister with unlimited funds and a generally positive public image is in danger of losing a seat the conservatives have held for 106 years, against a Labor campaign which is generally agreed to be rather shambolic, then the suspicion must be that the Coalition is looking at heavy losses in NSW.

Newspoll: Labor 53%, Coalition 47%

November 5, 2007

The last two Newspolls have shown a 5% swing to the Coalition in two weeks. Is this the long-awaited Narrowing, or merely a statistical blip? The other three polls – Nielsen, Morgan and Galaxy – have all shown swings to Labor in the last week, so Newspoll seems out of step. Nevertheless, I am among the minority of online commenters who have predicted some narrowing in the final weeks of the campaign. As always, we will have to wait for more polls to confirm or refute Newspoll’s results.

See my poll table here.

Candidate of the week

November 5, 2007

From the Family First website:

“Ann Bown Seeley married Harold in 2004 and together they have seven children, 18 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.”

Very quick work, Ann!

Welcome to Psephoblog

October 21, 2007

This blog is an adjunct to my website Adam Carr’s Guide to the 2007 federal election. It exists for visitors to that site to make comments on matters related to Australian elections, and specifically the 2007 federal election. It does not exist as a forum for general political debate or party-political spam. I will delete any such posts and block repeat offenders.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.