Peter Brent (@Mumbletwits) casts a sceptical eye over opinion polls and the media’s obsession with them

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I like Peter Brent (and so does Malcolm Mackerras) even though I disagree with his obsessive criticism of Wayne Swan and Penny Wong, both of whom I admire greatly. For those minor faults though Peter has a world of wisdom to share about politics and political science. Despite his reluctance to be labelled a psephologist he does have a very good grasp of election numbers, “the vibe” and “common sense” when it comes to interpreting polls and election results.

As a party professional I have been privileged to have access and use of opinion polling and must admit that I have learnt to always treat it VERY carefully. Peter is correct in that it is often misinterpreted and misused, not just in the mainstream media. At a recent Campaign Management and Political Marketing Workshop at Sydney University one of the highlights was a presentation by Stephen Mills from UMR, in defence of opinion polls. I’ll share those insights in a future post!

Here are some highlights from Peter Brent’s latest work on opinion polls and pollsters (full text here at inside.org.au If-an-election-had-been-held-on-the-weekend) and if you haven’t subscribed to Inside.org.au yet, seriously, what are you waiting for?

“Within the political class, Newspoll is the most watched and most influential. Published every second Tuesday in the Australian, the poll results are interpreted for readers by the paper’s political writers. It’s that interpretation – captured in headlines and opening paragraphs – that’s repeated, largely unquestioned, on ABC radio news bulletins and in other media across the country. No one holds a gun to their heads to force them to follow the Australian line, but something about the news-creation process means that they do. It’s probably just the path of least resistance.”

“The routine preface to the media reporting of survey results – “If an election had been held on the weekend…” – is terribly misleading. No poll can tell us what result an election last weekend, preceded by a campaign, would have thrown up. A pollster contacts a person and asks him or her to imagine there is an election today – and how would you vote? It’s a preposterously hypothetical and artificial exercise: a silly question eliciting silly answers.”

“Even after an over-hyped Malaysia Airlines–induced “boost” in satisfaction ratings, the most recent Newspoll had Tony Abbott on just 36 per cent satisfaction and the government trailing in voting intentions after preferences 46 to 54. At the equivalent time in his prime ministership, Kevin Rudd enjoyed 65 per cent satisfaction and the government led 54 to 46. John Howard was on 52 per cent satisfaction and the Coalition was in front 53 to 47. But Rudd didn’t even make it to the next election. Howard did, and scraped back, and then comfortably won two more. The Abbott government might be performing “badly” in the opinion polls but today’s numbers mean almost nothing. At the same time they mean a lot, because political players can’t ignore the way they influence what the media sees as the “narrative.”

“Abbott would be aware that if the polls continue as they are, speculation will arise about his prime ministership. His actions will increasingly be interpreted through the polls. On the Labor side, new rules have provided institutional ballast to the leadership, but they can be easily reversed. One day the forty-fourth parliament will end, and we’ll be starting a new one, most likely with a re-elected Coalition government. The mid-2014 polls will be long forgotten, and probably, with hindsight, judged laughably unreliable.”

If you have time after reading that article above by Peter you might also want to read the one in the link below. As I said on twitter when I shared it – I don’t agree with all of it but I’m still quite keen to read part 2! 🙂

 

 

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