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OK, let’s talk about opinion polls

If you’re writing a front page story based on a single opinion poll, you’re doing it wrong.

But look, do yourself a favor: go back and read the coverage of ACNielsen’s polling from six years ago. You can find it here and here, and my commentary from the time is here.

It was bad for the government (a Coalition government, of course, at the time). Very bad – in fact, rather worse than this week’s (58-42 compared to 56-44). And the commentary certainly reflected that. But reading it again I can’t see any suggestion that the government’s fate was a foregone conclusion, or that it was dead in the water.

And indeed, although the polls got even worse for it, that government didn’t lose in a landslide. It was decisively beaten, but it still managed 47.3% of the vote.

Governments fall behind in the polls all the time; sometimes they recover, sometimes they don’t. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this one will, but the idea that it’s impossible is sheer nonsense.

The Howard government’s recovery in 2001 is probably sui generis, but Peter Brent yesterday graphed its performance against the Gillard government’s polls to date and the two look eerily similar.

There’s a real story in the opinion polls at the moment: the way that the trend towards Labor from about the last eight months has gone into reverse. (See Mark the Ballot for the history.) But the media don’t want to tell that story because it would mean (a) admitting that the pro-Labor trend existed in the first place, which would conflict with their narrative, and (b) admitting that what matters is the trend averaged across a number of polls, not relying on a single poll or a single pollster.

It’s less than a year since I quoted Brent’s wise words about opinion polling, but it’s worth doing it again:

If news items were given the emphasis they deserve, political polls would [be on] say, around page eight … But opinion polls cost a bomb to produce, so onto page one they must go. Then everyone must pretend that’s where they belong, adding several hundred words of interpretation — turning them over, looking for meaning, interpreting them as good or bad for someone or other, pretending you can identify why the numbers move over a fortnight.

Don’t get excited about a dramatic movement in any single opinion poll.

Each is just an imprecise dip in the ocean. Wait for another, and then another.

If you’re writing a front page story based on a single opinion poll, you’re doing it wrong. No matter how interesting it seems, no matter how much it agrees with your preconceived notions.

And one more thing: the preferred prime minister numbers are still meaningless, no matter how many of them you’ve got. They were meaningless when Julia Gillard was ahead, and they’re meaningless now that Tony Abbott is ahead. Just ignore them.

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  • 1
    Jimmy
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    What’s worse is that the media have cdonstantly changed the poll results they report, if the ALP primary vote goes up but Gilalrds approval goes down they report the approval and vice versa, if the poll doesn’t have a negative for the ALP it gets a very short shift or get’s the end line of “Of course the Coalition would still win the election by a wide margin”.

  • 2
    Jacinta Benson
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I loathe the mainstream media. ALP leadership speculation is a moot point now. They have done a brilliant job at giving a one-sided perspective on the PM’s performance for 3 years. Julia Gillard’s demise is now a fait accompli. How the MSM misuse their position for political gain is indeed reprehensible but the ALP will need to take accurate stock, and develop effective solutions, if they have any hope of winning the next election. The ALP have to accept the MSM have successfully crucified Gillard politically. The ALP have 3 choices: a) install Rudd now and hope the MSM run out of ammo by September b) install Rudd in about 3 months and give him about 3 months to define himself as the next PM or c) feed Gillard to the press wolves for the next 7 months and sneak Rudd in after the MSM have gorged themselves stupid on Gillard and can’t see for ranga feathers,to be able to mount any seemingly logical attack on Rudd. Who is to know what point along the continuum would be most effective. The MSM would have strategies for ALP media persecution for each one of the next 207 days, daily adjusted. It would be good to have a boycott MSM day on 14 July, just to send a message to the MSM how appalled we are with them!

  • 3
    Charles Richardson
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    I think the media’s behavior over the last few years on this topic has been absolutely dreadful. But I don’t think most of it is politically motivated; I think it’s more due to fairly deep-seated problems with the mainstream media in general and the Canberra press gallery in particular. Unfortunately one of those problems is a pack mentality, so when some journalists who really do have a political bias (whom Crikey’s lawyers would not like me to name) get out in front with their insane interpretations, the rest just follow blindly along.

  • 4
    Merve
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The Age is demanding Rudd now and an election now!!!!! Perhaps they think that by being a pretending “The Australian” they can pick up some more readers.

  • 5
    Andybob
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Its quite simply laziness. Doing research and writing about the policies and the future are hard. Writing an opinion piece about a poll and leadership is easy. I know which one I will pay money for.

  • 6
    Peter Hull
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Just have to watch the press conference of health minister Tanya Plibersek. Not one question about health or her announcment. Journalists only had questions about the latest SMH poll. Shows the current quality of journalists. Work experience kids would put them to shame.

  • 7
    tonyfunnywalker
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Andybob – there have been some very important policy issues released by the Government which are lost due to the phobia with polls and leadership issues.

  • 8
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Opinion polls are not the frigging gospels brought down from the mountain.

    Altogther too many words and trees die to report the opinions of a 1,000 or so people on a given day about nothing much.

    Enough, no more frigging polls, talk of polls, the use of the word poll.

  • 9
    JMNO
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I have been thinking about why the coverage of federal politics and the federal government is just so hysterical, obsessed with trivia and drama whilst the media that press gallery staff work for can cover other areas of public life much better.

    The Age in Melbourne may run misleading and sensational headlines about state politics but it does manage to cover politics and policies in a more measured and comprehensive way than its woeful and partisan coverage of the federal sphere.

    We have not seen journalists promoting burning-at-the- stake for Baillieu for breaking all his election promises except those to the Country Party. Baillieu is down in the polls. No-one at The Age has written a headline article telling him to resign. And this is as it should be. His actions and inaction has been reported, the populace know about it, we can make our own judgements and don’t need denunciations from the roof top. And our capacity to judge their performance doesn’t get drowned out by hysterical overreaction.

    We also get reportage and analysis of state issues – roads, rail, education, hospitals etc.

    We get none of this at the federal level from the Press Gallery, just polls and personality politics.

    Is it because the press gallery are all huddled together in the fetid air of parliament house away from their colleagues at their paper/TV station, feeding off each other, focussed on the other inhabitants of the House and away from journos interested in other subjects?

    Is it because the link between federal policymaking and its implementation is not so easy to follow, results are not so immediate and tangible? If a state govt doesn’t build a road, everyone knows about the congestion. There’s a direct link.
    Is it because this is a reformist government which does things and therefore makes mistakes and the journos at parliament house don’t know enough about policy-making and implementation to understand this.

    A good example is the BER. The Age ran prominent stories on probably every disaffected school in Victoria and never reported on the majority of schools pleased with their new buildings. The mistakes/stuff-ups which were a minority were highlighted giving the impression of a faulty program whereas overwhelmingly it was a success – which was also never reported.

    Is it because over time governments have increasingly exercised tighter control over access to media so that journalists can’t talk to public servants and become better informed about the policy issues?

    Something else?

  • 10
    Hamis Hill
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    So the whole of the voters in a federal election are supposed to follow the lead of a couple of thousand individuals?
    A new brand of “democracy”, surely.
    But democracy will be whatever the parliamentary press corps say it is?
    Help! Democracy has been abducted!!

  • 11
    MJPC
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Shepherdm you have said it in one. The lastest opinion poll that has launched a million words by our incompetant media was from 1400 persons!
    Can anyone on this esteemed blog tell me if they have ever been contacted for a poll? No one I have ever spoken to has told me that have been polled.
    Polls are the best friend lazy jouno’s ever had. If the LNP’s get in in September, it won’t be due to policies, it will be as a result of Poll driven voting.

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  1. By No Crap App: w/b 18 Feb 2013 | No Crap App on February 23, 2013 at 9:53 am

    ...] Charles Richardson: OK, let’s talk about opinion polls [...

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