Poll blackout

The big political news yesterday was a national opinion poll showing, on its face anyway, that Labor would easily win an election held right now. you didn’t see it? I wouldn’t have either, except that it was in my Twitter feed for about five minutes and I happened to be looking at it. AFAICT, none of the major national news organizations even mentioned it. There seem to be a couple of possible reasons for this. One is that some people don’t like Morgan as a pollster (I don’t follow the polls closely enough to have a view on this).

The second is the idea that a result so far out of line with other polls (52.5-47.5 for Labor) must be a “rogue” or “outlier”. This reasoning reflects the fact that political journos still don’t understand stats. It would be sensible to ignore a poll finding if it was the result of a breakdown in sampling procedures, or a biased question. But this is the same poll Morgan has been running for many years, presumably with the same procedures. What is more likely is that, by chance, this particular sample population was more pro-Labor than the population as a whole. Every sampling procedure is subject to this kind of error. But the correct response is not to discard the data, but to collect more, or combine it with existing evidence.

Given four or five of recent polls with results around 53-47 for the coalition, simple averaging suggests that the best estimate would now be around 52-48. A better procedure would be to use a Bayesian model. This guy has done it, and Hey Presto, concludes that the best estimate is 51.9-48.1.

Coming back to the statistical illiteracy of journos, the problem may be put as follows. On the one hand, they know that it would be silly to run a “Labor ahead” story. On the other hand, they don’t have the technical chops to explain Bayesian updating, or even weighted averaging, and to do so would make it impossible to write future stories suggesting that small variations in poll numbers have any meaning.

Even so, I think Tony Abbott has had a lucky break here (as has, in a secondary way, Julia Gillard). The only thing keeping him in his job is the perception that, while he may be unpopular, the LNP are sure to win. Even a single poll challenging that could pave the way for a spill. And if the result were to return Malcolm Turnbull, the outlook for the Gillard government would suddenly get a lot worse.

58 thoughts on “Poll blackout

  1. @BilB

    I go further in that I argue that he is not a suitable person to even contemplate that high office.

    In my defence, it is difficult to mention Tony Abbott without being negative.

    No argument there, BilB.

  2. @Tim Macknay

    The definition of a successful Opposition leader is one who becomes Prime Minister.

    While I can certainly see why that would be one definition of a successful LotO a better one, IMO, would be one whose advocacy materially improved public policy outcomes, shone light on issues that an insufficient number of people had adequately considered and who did so in a way that made it easy for most people to make sense of the key objects of good policy and the nature and scope of constraints on progress and thus fostered active citezenship and inclusion.

    I’d say a LotO who could claim those things would be an outstanding success whether he or she ever became PM or not because that person would have honoured democracy and equity in his/her action and ensured that whoever won the election, the community would be less poorly served than would otherwise be the case, and that decision-making would be less caprcious and more effective, efficient and equitable.

    To quote John Lennon …

    You may say I’m a dreamer … 😉

  3. @Fran Barlow
    Fran, I was thinking pragmatically about what is generally seen as a criterion for defining success in an opposition leader, rather than espousing an ideal of what an opposition leader should do.

    Since opposition leaders who never won an election are rarely remembered except as footnotes, and almost never given credit by posterity for any good work they have done fostering better policy, improving legislation and so forth, in my view the default consensus position appears to be that a successful opposition leader is one who wins government.

    I have no disagreements with your ideal of what a good opposition leader (and perhaps, any good politican) should do. We should be so lucky.

  4. @Tim Macknay

    And in return, it is clear that for most people, a successful LotO is one that displaces a PM. What I was suggesting lay on a line between whimsy and optimism. I doubt I shall live to see such a LotO but it is interesting to wonder how such a person would be characterised in the popular media. Dangerous? Possibly. A failure? I’m not so sure.

    In any event, the point is probably moot.

  5. One of Morgan’s problems is that the comments they make about their own polls are so often so obviously wrong that it unnecessarily discourages people from taking the data seriously. For instance they claim that face-to-face is most accurate, even though anyone can see it habitually skews Labor by about 2 points, and even though they themselves switch to phone polling when the money is down in the last week of campaigns. They’re forever making claims about the meaning of their results that are often not credible and sometimes contradicted by the next poll they put out, without a word from the pollster saying “hmm, on second thoughts …”

    Another obstacle is that while Newspoll is “house pollster” for the Australian and Nielsen is “house pollster” for Fairfax (and even Essential is “house pollster” for Crikey) Morgan lacks the same natural outlet that will write about its results so heavily.

    Morgan also do some very strange things, like presenting results for their recent Gillard/AWU poll that included 14-17 year old respondents, even though the number of such voters included in the sample was too small to learn anything much about them as a group and many of them had no opinion anyway. A lot of Morgan releases seem almost calculated to annoy a reader trying to analyse their data.

  6. Hi! Weird story, if you ask me I read the total opposite last week :S Ive looked it up and put it in the URL thingy so you all can read. Also, if you ask me id say you have written a very decent story and the grammar was awesome good job mate!

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