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Don't believe the polls?

February 23rd, 2004

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.

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  1. February 23rd, 2004 at 21:54 | #1

    One point to remember is that the two parties appeal to demographic areas who do not have natural class sympathies.
    This may be due to the perverse cultural profile, with the ALP appealing to cultural elitists whilst the LNP appeals to cultural populists.
    Thus the ALP has to soften it’s economic nationalist ideology in order to appeal to households with middling incomes, liable to high marginal income tax rates, who are likely to cluster in some of the more marginal seats.
    They are susceptible to Costello-ite appeals for lower top-tax rates.
    Meanwhile the LNP has to soften it’s economic rationalist ideology in order to appeal to the battlers in the bush who have lower than average income.
    They are in marginal seats and are more suscpetible to Hansonite appeals for more services.

    This is frustrating to people who prefer everyone to line up in an orderly fashion on a single spectrum of ideolgoical values. However, the genius of the two-party system frustrates these polarising spectacles.

  2. Dave Ricardo
    February 24th, 2004 at 08:39 | #2

    “Jeff Kennett cut services and was defeated”

    I don’t disagree with your sentimnents, but your facts are wrong. Jeff Kennett made huge cuts to services in his first term, and was re-elected in a land slide in March 1996. He made modest increases in services in his second term, and was then defeated.

    As for Chikarovski in 1999, she was unknown to the electorate, having knocked over Peter Collins for the leadership just a few months earlier, and was hugely unimpressive in any case. Nobody was paying any attention to her and her promises. Carr was riding the crest of the pre-Olympics building boom. He was always going to win easily. The sheer incompetence of the Opposition turned an easy win into a landslide.

  3. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2004 at 09:02 | #3

    On Chikarovski, I agree she was going to lose anyway, but the fistful of dollars made things worse.

    On Kennett, I don’t agree with the implicit assumption that voters always decide on the basis of the most recent term. An unpopular government that gets an undeserved win because of the hopelessness of the opposition builds up a debt of resentment.

    Labor was still utterly unelectable in 1996, so voters had to hold their nose and re-elected Kennett. The stored-up anger was paid for next time around.

    Other instances of the same phenomenon were Keating in 1993 and 1996, the British Tories in 1993 (or maybe 92) and ever since. With luck the same will apply for Howard’s 2001 win.

  4. Geoff Honnor
    February 24th, 2004 at 09:06 | #4

    “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.”

    John, it’s only my gut instinct but the casebuild you offer here has nothing much to do with the actual reasons for the respective defeats of Chika/Kennett. Australia’s foremost blog commenter has got it about right in my view though he didn’t mention the overweening – almost Napoleonic – hubris that Kennett exhibited in his final campaign, which Victorian voters found more than a little off-putting. ‘Too big for his bloody boots’ kind of summed it up, the same conclusion drawn about PJK in 96.

  5. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2004 at 09:49 | #5

    It’s a bit difficult to test the competing hypothesis since an undeserved election win tends to provoke unbearable hubris in the winner. Examples in addition to Jeff and PJK include Bjelke-Petersen’s win after the split with the Liberals in the mid-80s, which led to the disastrous “Joh for Canberra” push and prepared the ground for his ultimate downfall.

  6. Homer Paxton
    February 24th, 2004 at 09:52 | #6

    JQ, apart from Hawke/Keating struggling from a currency crisis when was the last time an australian Government cut both the government sector and the overall tax take?

    Thus are we not selecting the best managerial social democratic Government?

  7. February 24th, 2004 at 10:15 | #7

    Perceptions and the fall of Kennett – the Libs did an excellent if horrid job of labelling the ALP as fiscally hopeless, and repeated that in 96, running again on the Guilty Party slogan… but a lot of people hated Kennett for cutting services particularly in the bush. It seems to me that this was a classic grass roots revolt, delivering good independent members to Parliament. It seemed to depend on a series of crystallisations, metaphorical moments at which he became THAT MAN in small microcommunities like families and bowling clubs and front bars. So our decade here, in media terms, was about the Big Smear followed by Local Insights. “I was fine about them until the ambulance didn’t come for little Dodie down the road.”

  8. February 24th, 2004 at 10:45 | #8

    Pr Q engages in some normative poll analysis of his own:

    An unpopular government that gets an undeserved win because of the hopelessness of the opposition builds up a debt of resentment…The stored-up anger was paid for next time around…With luck the same will apply for Howard’s 2001 win.

    It is hard to characterise Beazley as a hopeless Opposition leader. He bested Howard in votes in 1998 and he was giving Howard a run for his money in 2001, until Tampa/911.

    Even so, the Howard govt was not an unpopular government in 2001, it won the Aston by-election, and it’s poll numbers were on the improve even before Tampa/911.

    Howard won the 2001 election because his cultural policies (identity and security) are more in tune with the wishes of the majority. And because his economic policies (debt retirement and asset inflation) were acceptable to the majority.

    And he delivered the goods, seeing Australia through a threatening and uncertain period (Timor, Tampa, Terrorism) at comparatively low cost in blood and treasure. Plus the housing boom kicked on and appears to have made people wealthier.

    The elites are to the Right of the electorate on economics, but they are to the Left of the electorate on culture. This may be difficult for liberal-leftists to stomach, but it remains the truth.

    Latham is getting a dream run in the media at the moment, but it will not last. Even Carr is showing feet of clay. Howard still has some electoral legs. Do not underestimate Little Johhny.

  9. gordon
    February 24th, 2004 at 10:59 | #9

    Back in Feb.2003 ACOSS released a study by Wilson and Breusch showing a trend away from preferring tax cuts and towards preparedness to pay for social services. I have only a press clipping, not the actual study, but the Canberra Times report said “Between 1987 and 2001, the
    proportion of Australians
    favouring more spending on social
    services doubled from 14 to 30 per
    cent. During the same period there
    was a 23 per cent decline in the
    proportion of Australians in favour
    of reduced taxes.” Looks like a trend.

  10. Homer Paxton
    February 24th, 2004 at 12:52 | #10

    Jack a big deal is made of the Aston by-election as a harbinger to the 2001 poll.
    Don’t believe it.
    In 1983 a person by the name of Peter Reith won thje Flinders by-election yet the ALP won the election.
    Can I suggest both by-elections had a common theme.
    Hopeless ALP candidates!

    Howard was still goint to lose as both parties and Hughie MacKay’s focus group’s showed. Howard was on the nose.
    Tampa just blew that odour and electorate memory right out theb window.

  11. James Farrell
    February 24th, 2004 at 13:10 | #11

    Comment on Kennett I cannot, but my research in the West of Sydney (chatting with the Lebanese neighbours) supports John’s claim regarding Chika. The attempted bribe confirmed the lack of seriousness about fixing infrastructure.

  12. Geoff Robinson
    February 24th, 2004 at 15:33 | #12

    On the operations of public opinion polling companies. I recall a recent op-ed in The Age by Greg Hywood equating the US-Australia FTA as equal to popularity to John Howard’s Tampa actions. The byline identified Hywood as a consultant to Roy Morgan. What skills Hywood brings to Roy Morgan are unknown.

  13. A Friend
    February 24th, 2004 at 17:46 | #13

    Lebovic is no different to any other high profile News employee. (Newspoll is owned by News, of course.)

    It’s Rupert’s and brown-nosing all the way.

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