Don't believe the polls?
It’s not unusual for a politician, faced with an unfavorable poll result, to say something like “the only poll that counts is the one election day”. And we all know that poll questions can be slanted to give the desired result, and correspondingly dismissed by those who don’t like the pollster’s choice of question. But I can’t recall a previous occasion on which a pollster has dismissed the results of his own polling, particularly when we are talking about a margin of 72 to 9. Yet, if we are to believe the editorial in today’s Oz, that’s exactly what Sol Lebovic of Newspoll did when his polling produced a result unfavorable to his client’s campaing for lower taxes. (thanks to reader Jethro for pointingthis piece out).
As discussed in more detail below, when asked whether they preferred a tax cut or more spending on health and education, the answer was 72 to 9 in favour of more spending. The same poll found 50 per cent of respondents believing that the top marginal rate was too high. In an editorial with the astounding (in view of the data) heading, Cutting income tax is a political winner, the Oz calls this a conundrum and cites Lebovic as saying
voters may be giving the “socially acceptable” answer on what they want the Government to do with the surplus.
The Oz goes on to say
In other words, while their consciences may be uneasy about cutting back the welfare state, their gut instincts are telling them we should be cutting back taxes. Mr Howard and Mr Latham would be well advised to respect the voters’ instincts.
It’s not clear whether Lebovic would accept this gloss, which suggests that his poll results should be discarded whenever they disagree with someone’s gut instincts (note that the claims about the instincts of the voters are baseless – the Oz editorial writer is expressing their own gut instincts and those of the political elite).
Lebovic is of course, correct to say that survey respondents often give socially acceptable, rather than accurate, answers. For example, surveys find that far more households take National Geographic than National Inquirer, but circulation figures tell a different story. Unfortunately for the Oz, it’s not a good basis for a political campaign if the viewpoint expressed is so socially unacceptable that only 9 per cent of people will confess to holding it. Moreover, voting is itself an expressive act. Someone who would secretly like a tax cut but doesn’t want to admit can’t actually secure the tax cut for themselves by voting that way – they only get the cut if a majority agrees with it.
A second problem, which undermines the idea of a ‘conundrum’ is that of the shifting majority. 72 per cent of people favored more health and education spending while 50 per cent said the top rate is too high – the number giving both responses could be as small as 22 per cent.
More importantly, there’s no necessary contradiction here. People might support cuts in income tax but think that health and education spending are more important. They could resolve the implied problem for the budget either by favoring a higher deficit, or by making up the difference somewhere else, for example through a higher rate of GST ( a suggestion raised in the previous comments thread by James Farrell) or lower defence spending.
Finally, it’s worth observing that the gut instincts of the voter have been tested in a number of recent state elections. Kerry Chikarovski went to the voters offering a literal fistful of dollars and was buried under a Labor landslide. Jeff Kennett cut services and was defeated by a Labor Party widely viewed as unelectable.
The Oz is grasping at straws when it claims that the overwhelming rejection of its policy line by respondents to its own poll is some sort of pretence. If I were Sol Lebovic, I’d be asking for more respectful treatment of my results.