The above graph is the swing in the primary vote of the government. What it shows is the difference between the governments primary vote as estimated by Newspoll each month and the governments primary vote at the previous election.
A few things stand out.
Firstly, the dramatic effect that One Nation had on the Coalitions primary vote. The One Nation period in the above shaded area starts in June 1997 with the formation of the party, and ends with the October 1998 election.
The other thing that stands out, as in its utterly impossible to miss, is the slow terminal decline of the Howard governments vote that has been gathering momentum well before Rudd came onto the scene.
From the beginning of 1999, the swings to the government started getting smaller, then the swings turned negative and started going away from the government, then they started snowballing.
This is a slow, but long term acceleration away from the government and something we don’t see very often in Australian politics. But what must really be concerning the Coalition is the momentum behind that acceleration.
It isn’t some temporary shock to the primary vote that peaks rapidly and washes out of the system relatively quickly as can be seen occurring in other periods on that graph. Nor is it the consistent mean swing away from the incumbent that the Hawke/Keating governments experienced up to the 1992 budget if you look beyond the volatility – this is an entirely different phenomenon.
This gets us onto another point.
Every journo, commentator, pundit and their dog wax lyrical about the ALP vote being soft.
Well let me be contrarian and suggest that it isn’t the ALP vote that is soft, it’s the Coalition vote. One Nation clearly demonstrated that the Coalition has got a soft underbelly for some demographics. I’d go as far to say that the Coalition primary vote has never fully recovered from the One Nation raid on its primaries.
Another piece of evidence is that the Coalitions primary vote makes a surge a few months out from the election. That last heave-ho effort to get the waverers back into the Coalition fold (which you can see from the spikes on the election lines for the last two elections) is not an exercise in shoring up the base as the US Republicans do, far from it. Shoring up the base is a gradual process of moral bribery and throwing the odd ideological bone (albeit to much fanfare) to stop the base from deserting or disappearing up their own apathetic fundaments.
What Howard has been doing is wresting back a largish number of people in the lead up to the elections, people that had already deserted him. And we can see how that operates – in 2001, the 60 odd billion of bribery, Tampa, 9/11 and an emphasis on what the ALP would do on national security and refugees.
In 2004, it was another 60 odd billion of bribery and an emphasis on what the ALP will do to your interest rates, and what Latham would do to anyone or anything that came near him.
Both of those campaigns weren’t so much about the Coalition, but about the Coalition talking about the ALP. The Coalition was effectively saying “it’s not about us, it’s about them”. Why? Because “them” had the votes.
If the Coalitions vote weren’t soft, the Coalition would have used the significant media power of incumbency to make the campaign about the Coalition. That’s what governments with strong support do – look no further than Peter Beattie for the handbook on that particular type of behaviour.
But the Coalitions vote isn’t strong, it’s soft. And it’s been soft for a very long time and getting softer.
One problem for Howard is that the number of Coalition voters gone AWOL has continued to increase, meaning the spikes he generally needs to achieve to win elections (such as 2001 and 2004) are becoming larger. The spike required in 2007 is unprecedented.
The other problem is that if he keeps making it all about the ALP and Kevin Rudd, he risks the electorate waking up one morning and agreeing with him that it is all about the Labor Party- and they don’t mind what they see.