We all despair for the predicament poor old Malcolm Turnbull finds himself in (well, some of us do – you heartless Un-Australian buggers that are wallowing in his misery should feel ashamed of yourselves!), wondering why he doesn’t do this or that thing to improve his standings and provide some real political opposition. But maybe there is little Turnbull can do – maybe there’s little Opposition Leaders, in the general case, can ever do to improve their standings. Maybe Opposition leaders are mere gimps to the actions and public perceptions of the Prime Minister of the day?

If we breakdown every Newspoll from January 1986 through to April 2009, and convert the Newspoll metrics into monthly averages (which not only gives us a time consistent data set to work with, but also has the fortuitous side effect of knocking out a large amount of polling noise from the data) – we can run a few charts that highlight how the Prime Minister of the day is really in charge of his own political destiny.

First up, we know that satisfaction ratings are an important indicator of political support – voters that are satisfied with a political leader are more likely to vote for them. But are all satisfaction ratings equal? Does the relationship between the Prime Ministers satisfaction rating and his party’s vote estimates have the same strength as the one between the Leader of the Opposition’s satisfaction rating and their party’s vote estimates?

The answer is definitely no.

To see this, we can take all 281 months worth of our Newspoll data and turn it into a series of scatter plots – where for each month we plot a satisfaction rating against a vote estimate of the polling.

If we look at how the satisfaction ratings of the government and the opposition play out against their respective vote estimates, we get these:

govsatvote

opsatvote

The red lines in the charts are a simple regression line to show the linear relationship.

As we can see, the PM’s satisfaction rating has a much stronger relationship to the PM’s vote than does the Leader of the Oppositions satisfaction rating to their primary vote. This means that improvements in satisfaction levels for the PM lead to much larger gains in primary vote levels than the Opposition can achieve by improving their satisfaction levels.

But what also needs to be mentioned here is that there isn’t a fixed piece of satisfaction pie at play in Australian politics. The level of satisfaction for a Prime Minister has no relationship to the level of satisfaction for an Opposition Leader, which we can see by plotting one satisfaction rating against the other:

satcomps

That linear line isn’t statistically significant, so when the PM’s satisfaction rating goes up (or down), the public doesn’t automatically become less (or more) satisfied with the Leader of the Opposition as a result.

If we know move on to how the PM satisfaction level plays out against the Oppositions primary vote, another strong relationship pops up. We’ll also do the same for the Opposition leader Satisfaction rating against the government primary vote (just click to expand the charts)

opprimpmsat govprimopsat

Again, PM Satisfaction as a very strong relationship to the vote estimates for the Opposition, to the point where PM Satisfaction historically explains just over 50% of the variation of the Opposition’s primary vote – as the PM gains higher levels of satisfaction, the Oppositions primary vote starts dropping. Yet on the other side of the equation, the satisfaction rating of the Opposition has a pretty weak relationship to the government primary vote, explaining only 8% of the variation in the last 23 years worth of data.

In political terms, this suggests that while Turnbull could be expected to make marginal gains in the polling for the Opposition if he started acting in ways that increased his personal satisfaction ratings, it wouldn’t be expected to be large gains – certainly not enough to win an election.

Turnbull – like nearly all Opposition Leaders before him – is effectively a slave to the Prime Ministers own personal standing with the electorate. This can also be seen with what is actually the strongest satisfaction relationship to the Opposition’s primary vote – not the Prime Ministers satisfaction rating above, but the Prime Minister’s dissatisfaction rating.

opprimpmdissat

Based on the last 23 years worth of data, with a PM Dissatisfaction rating of 23, the expected primary vote for the Opposition should be 36.2 according to that regression line. It’s currently sitting on 36.5 – bang on where it historically ought to be.

In fact, Turnbull is currently so wedded to the historical relationship between the Opposition’s primary vote and PM Satisfaction dynamics, that we can also use the regression line of the Opposition Primary Vote vs. PM Satisfaction chart shown back up the post a bit, to forecast an almost identical result.

With a PM Satisfaction average for April 2009 of 67%, we would expect the Oppositions primary vote to currently be 35.8. Again, extremely close to the 36.5 where it actually sits at the moment.

Turnbull isn’t performing badly, nor is he performing well – he’s simply a slave, not only to Rudd’s satisfaction levels, but a slave to polling history.

This brings us to the question of just how big a task is Turnbull facing to get the Opposition primary vote back up to a level where they are seriously in contention to win the next election? For the Coalition to win, they need a primary vote higher than Labor’s – which would mean somewhere around the 43 to 44 mark to even begin to be in contention. Looking at those charts above that track the Oppositions primary vote against both the PM Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction ratings, Turnbull needs to knock about 25 points of satisfaction from Rudd and send those people into Rudd’s dissatisfaction column. He has to change the perceptions of 1 in 4 voters – which is no mean feat.

If we change those PM satisfaction dynamics into net satisfaction ratings (satisfaction minus dissatisfaction) and plot it against the Opposition primary vote – it tells the story perfectly.

opprimnetpmsat

To be in with a chance of winning the election, Turnbull needs to bring Rudd’s net satisfaction level down into the negatives, about minus 10 – which, as it so happens, is about where Turnbull’s current net satisfaction rating sits.

But while doing that, he also needs to improve his own satisfaction level while reducing his dissatisfaction level. Can he achieve that through the constant negative harping that’s become a hallmark of his leadership so far?

All it’s achieved so far is to drive his own approvals into the ground without affecting Rudds approvals at all – it’s time for Turnbull to try something different. If he doesn’t, he will likely go down in history as the man that took the conservatives to their largest ever defeat.

Einstein has been attributed with describing insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It’s hard to argue with.

The only more disturbing thought for conservatives than their leader engaging in deliberate electoral insanity is the possibility that Turnbull’s polling position actually has little if anything to do with his own actions – for if that’s the case, the future of conservative politics in Australia is wholly in Rudd’s hands, which really would drive them insane.

UPDATE: Andrew Norton takes a slightly different angle on where Turnbull should go from here, while Mark at Larvatus Prodeo argues for the general non viability of the Turnbull approach.

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