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Making Sense (or Nonsense) of Political Polling

If you are as concerned with Australian politics as I am then no doubt you take an interest in the polls.

What do they tell us? Are they legitimate? How do pollsters arrive at their conclusions? What about their accuracy? Can we have confidence in them or are they overrated?

Whether you like them or not it seems that Australians have a great appetite for them. The media recognises this and promotes them as the definitive measurement of the political standing of all parties. The Australian newspaper even creates stories around its Newspoll. Often an exercise in how to just make things up.

But how do we know the difference between Australia’s most popular pollsters and the diverse techniques they use.

However, one thing for sure is that we do have a morbid fascination with polling. Political leaders may brush them off as being meaningless but surreptitiously they are taken very seriously.

Modern political polling began in 1936, with two polls attempting to predict the outcome of the American presidential election. The Literary Digest conducted its poll by sending out 10 million post cards asking people how they would vote. They received almost 2.3 million back and said that Alfred Landon was leading Franklin Roosevelt by 57-43 per cent. In contrast, market researcher George Gallup employed a much smaller sample of only 5,000, but because he ensured that it was representative of the American voting public, he predicted Roosevelt to win by a landslide. In the event, Roosevelt won 60% and Landon just 37%. The Literary Digest lost credibility and subsequently merged with Time magazine in 1938.

We can be assured that the polls are not going to go away. They will in fact intensify as we get closer to the next election. So it is important that they are of the best quality possible. We need to know the differences between the good ones and the bad ones. Or at least how each arrives at its conclusions. But how can we?

Australia has a number of national pollsters.

The Australian newspaper publishes Newspoll. It usually publishes a poll on federal voting intentions every two weeks but at the time of writing has not done so for some time. It does not disclose the criteria it uses on its website but rather espouses its expertise and track record. It is known that it polls land-line phone accounts only. The problem with this is the diminishing access to a variety of people of younger age groups. Telstra estimates that it will lose 60% of its land-line users over the next few years. Even now one would have to question where they source enough younger folk to participate. Are people on landlines, the stay at homes, truly representative of the populace?

Fairfax: The Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald parted, after a 19 year association, with Neilson in June of this year and are seeking a new partner.

Roy Morgan is the only poll that takes in landlines, mobile telephony, face to face and the internet. It delivers its findings fortnightly via email. It usually delivers a sharp contrast to the other polls.

Galaxy is an independent research company operated by Jamie Briggs. It doesn’t outline its methodology for political polling but its web site does indicate a broad spectrum of media usage.

The Essential Report is based on a weekly sample of 1000 and is usually accompanied by a survey of questions of social interest that usually gives a fair indication of how people are thinking on various issues.

Then, there is Reachtel. It relies on both land-line and mobile telephony for both marketing and polling using recorded messages. It’s a relatively new innovation that it yet to be fully tested over time. People press numbers (interactive voice response) in relation to answers but they aren’t asked age or sex.

All of those listed use different methodology for the vital ingredient of preferences. The two party preferred is the figure that matters most. They all allow for a margin of error using different criteria.

You can add to these the preponderance of online polls like The Drum that saturate the internet and poll every policy and controversy. Of course there is not an online newspaper that doesn’t poll something every day which usually just reflect the readership of the newspaper.

Then we have the Television news polls that are meaningless, only reproducing the views only of those with an earnest interest in whatever the subject is.

Should I mention audience polling?

The media is obsessed with polls. Donors, supporters and political parties really do fret over, or use them tactically to create impressions about how well their party is doing. Conversely, polls are criticised as biased, inaccurate, or simply wrong if they don’t support your view. So what’s in a poll? How do we measure the veracity one to the other?

The fact is we cannot. Polls need to be put into perspective. They are snapshots that reflect public opinion at a specific point in time.

Of utmost importance to polling is the credibility of the sample and we are not able to test this.

It is the same as trying to understand why the voting on talent shows is never revealed.

There are however, some things we do know.

We know that by historical evidence poll samples under 1000 are untrustworthy and inaccurate. We also know that the way in which a question is framed will often determine the outcome.

And we also know that they can be very accurate if measured over a long period. They can also be a precise gauge of public opinion at the time, but in terms of predicting an election result two years away, to be utterly useless.

They can tell us, for example, that the Rudd/Gillard governments were very unpopular, but their policies were popular, and that the Abbott government never received the usual honeymoon period gifted to a new government. Or that an unpopular leader can benefit from a national crisis or at least the perception of it. They can show us how different age groups are thinking. For example most polls are showing that young people hate Abbott with a vengeance.

Some polls like Morgan poll over a two-week period rotating between face to face interviews and telephone. The rotation might include a particular event or controversy in the cycle or miss it altogether.

And to confuse matters more, we currently have a situation where the incumbent government has almost drawn level with its opposition despite a budget in turmoil and a universal acceptance that it has governed badly – and its policies being rejected by the electorate.

How can this be? Are we to believe that at this stage of the electoral cycle around 50% of people would vote for a conservative party who had so badly governed?

We are in an era of market research, surveys, media journalistic opinion, reaction to 24 hour news cycles, inquiries, case studies, focus groups and polling that all seem to determine government policy or public opinion.

The best way of to evaluate what the polls are saying at any given time is to take an average over several different polls on a continuous basis. This has the advantage of combining different sample sizes and methodologies to give greater precision.

The online media blog Crikey under the banner The Poll Bludger publishes comprehensive analytical data of national and state polling. They have both Labor and the LNP level pegging. Take a look and read into it what you may.

As for me I’d ban the bloody things. Just joking.
Why isn’t The Australian publishing its Newspoll? Don’t they have a story to run with, or aren’t there enough young people at home when they ring. Oh I forgot. They weight the responses to equalise ages and sex. Weighting polls is trying to equalise the demographics.

Of course polling is a competitive business and pollsters won’t disclose how they weight. That would be like giving away your favorite recipe. Getting too complicated. How about this then?:

The only poll that matters is the one on polling day.


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  1. David

    John re Galaxy and David Briggs, he was Instrumental in establishing Newspoll’s polling credentials from the day the company opened its doors in 1985 until 2004. So he was a Murdoch employee.
    Now Galaxy does its political polling for Murdoch’s NewsCorp papers except the Australian. Again employed by Murdoch….just saying!

  2. John Lord

    Thanks David.

  3. stephentardrew

    I miss Possum Comitatis he was awesome. Nothing round like him now. I tend to ignore poles as they slip and slide all over the place. One thing is for sure Labor will need a king hit too the LNP soon or they will be swallowed in market research and knee jerk tripping after the polls. Some are saying Shorten is copying the Abbott strategy but that is ridiculous. Abbott took every photo opportunity possible and if he didn’t have one he created one. How the hell can you shift the poles by shadow boxing. I think any politically aware punter can read the polls pretty successful and knows the underlying bias of each. You used to be able to ask Possum any question you liked about his stats methodology and he would give a comprehensive reply with charts and figures. I sure miss him.

  4. David

    Pleasure John as it is to catchup with your articles. Unlike many in the Murdoch media, you make sense

  5. CMMC

    Another way of looking at these polls is to see them as metrics of how far right-wing memes have penetrated.

    It must be a case of “Have you been paying attention?” for NewsCorp to be quizzing the populace. I imagine the questions are framed upon the ab initio that “we have Labor’s debt disaster and Border Protection failure to deal with”.

  6. donwreford

    Are polls fixed? I always thought voting were like the Gospels, absolute, although, this is figuratively speaking as it is uncertain as to the truth of Gospels, as you are aware, a recent Australian politician questioned this, and was found the voting was either fixed or were omissions?

  7. dowlingdavid02

    I myself,had an interesting experience on the leadup to last election John.I don’t know if it’s happened to anyone else.But I had a call from one of the pollsters,asking me my voting intention.As domeone who has voted one way for the 50+years I have been eligiible to vote.When I told them,they started telling me to change my vote for the LNP.I just politely hung up in their ear.So I actullay wonder about the accuracy of the polls.

  8. Kaye Lee

    I live in a marginal seat and get polled a lot (so to speak). They whittle out respondents by asking initial questions to suit their objective. If you don’t answer the way they want they say thanks and do not proceed with the poll. I have learned to lie my way through the first few questions so that my responses will be included. Saying you are a young swinging voter usually gets you through. The timing of the calls also affects the results. Ring on a Friday or Saturday night and you are missing a whole demographic. Ring at lunchtime on a weekday – once again, results will be skewed towards certain groups. The geographic breadth is also a factor. Ringing 1000 people in rural Australia or the western suburbs of Sydney would likely yield different results to ringing 1000 people in inner-city Melbourne or the eastern suburbs of Sydney. People in Tasmania may have different priorities to people in WA.

    The questions are often phrased such that you are forced to give an answer that doesn’t truly represent your view but it’s the least worse answer. One poll read out a list of random politicians from different parties and from both state and federal level. My only options were approve, disapprove or don’t know. Or what is the single most important thing to you in the upcoming election? Like I can answer that in one word. Do you mean immediately, short term, long term?

    And the polls are commissioned by different groups. One poll was at the behest of the minerals council. I would assume the person paying for the poll would have input into its parameters as well as control over what parts of the findings are published if any. It’s worth asking who commissioned the poll.

    Having said that, I was rung the other day by someone from my local member’s office who knew my phone number, my name, my email address, and he spoke to me at length allowing me to say what I wanted and to expand on why. I was so astonished I did not express myself well because a million things popped to mind. This wasn’t a poll because he didn’t ask me set questions. I choose to believe they want to hear the electorate’s point of view rather than they are targeting me for a raid.

  9. Kathy

    They never phone me here at Nimbin. That’s odd.

  10. Billy moir

    Stats can be drivers of opinions because they are like the economy, ‘misunderstood’ ‘mysterious’ ‘meaningful’ and both the economy and the polls are the province of the rabbott.
    Your ‘…who had so badly governed’ is as subjective as your’…their policies were popular’ and both are ridiculously inaccurate. Any casual BBQ chat will show that Gillard achieved nothing, she and her idiot swan were disasters for the Australala economy and that we are so lucky to have the rabbott in charge he has turned the economy around and stopped the borrowing and the boats. Sadly as Labor is short on correcting these outrageous claims so the polls don’t need tricky questions to give the desired result! QED!

  11. stephentardrew

    Bill moir:

    If your casual BBQ chat is your grounds for knowledge then we can substantially ignore your claims.

  12. stephentardrew

    Lucky you are not in the US Kaye or you would be watching out for those flash grenades. Mind you a good tasering would not go astray.

  13. david

    Get back under the rock you have crawled out from Moir, Tory trolls are not tolerated, your type particularly…am just in the mood for you, indeed I am

  14. Billy moir

    Good one Stephen to whom do you talk? Yourself? Anyone who doesn’t watch the ABC? Anyone who reads the headings of the Australian or the other news ltd press? Anyone who watches morning commercial TV(no sign of little billy or torpid tanya refuting the lies???) Anyone who has a BBQ? Any retired professional brought up by a mum and dad who ‘worshipped’ Menzies or their similarly indoctrinated grandchildren children? Any worker who was pressured by pommie union bosses as an apprentice and won’t vote labor? Any one who wears a blue singlet or a white singlet and believes they are significant?
    Have you no friends who voted for the rabbott? Do you talk to anyone who believes his hype despite not being able to list three things howard did and who cover their ears when you talk about the achievements of labor from whitlam on, including those of Gillard.
    Do you not sit at the golf club whilst sexist, racist and abbottian lies are spread and make an arsehole of yourself trying to change attitudes??
    ‘In the mood’ what a joke David! More like out of touch!
    A simple read would show that the criticism is of labor for NOT correcting the BBQ ‘outrageous’ claims.
    What did Gillard arm her supporters with to counter the rabbott’s slogans?
    They couldn’t even counter the debt crisis lie? Did any of you try to explain to the voters confused by the rabbott and Murdoch?
    Is little billy counteracting the rabbott’s lies including the debt crisis lie? The slogan of Gillard’s, Swan’s and Labor’s debt is still unchallenged but little billy!
    What should we think of a man whose answer to ‘Barry spurr’s’ offensive emails’ is ‘I have read the article(nervous noise) and I am less sensitive’ the rabbott is declaring he is less sensitive than pyne wow I imagined only twits who jump to conclusions without reading the post were less sensitive that pyne.
    How does that sit with lazy twits like you pair who are too far up yourselves to understand why the rabbott is in charge of the voters? Yes I am a troll because little billy has exactly the same beliefs and education as the rabbott, as bullock, as hockey, as pyne as Joyce and very little difference between those of albanese, robb and Andrews. Funny that there are no women on that political list and none here criticising my post perhaps they read it before commenting or understood it or just ignored it (as torpid tanya does, little billy could not take my criticism, like channel 9 rednecks complaining about ‘abbutt head of the opposition’ before him and both have given me the flick.
    I have enjoyed the image of writing to a couple of cravats swirling their brandies with a selfsatisfied smirk at putting down another frustrated labor bleeding heart. Good luck boys little Billy’s inability to expose the rabbott’s character flaws will put the amoral ideologue and his ‘team’ to the right of the bishops for he foreseeable future.
    But I should just have laughed and said ‘looking is for those who cannot read’. ‘Reading is for those that can think’ ‘evidence is the enemy of belief’ ‘conclusions are to be jumped to’. Or just laughed!!!

  15. John Lord

    Can someone enlighten me as to what Billy is on about.

  16. david

    Whatever it is, it’s from a very sick individual. Another case of Tory madness brought on by to much Abbott adoration at the bike stand, probably ensuring his saviour has a choice of budgies…..or maybe he collects them when the dullard has finished with them. He probably has a sponsor providing in quantity, name somewhere on the latex YUK!!
    Anyway enough of the troll, just a waste of space.

  17. Billy moir

    Sorry John, if you had read my rambling post about the voters who are assailed by the slogans at BBQs with no rejoinders, to the end, unlike david and ?? you may have some inkling.

    However, the sadness for me about labor is the inability of the grass roots to challenge the slogans of the rabbott at the BBQ level.

    Little billy has taken a quiet stance avoiding the TV but the rabbott’s men and their women rule the roost like pig iron bob did with lies, like little johnnie did with lies, like the rabbott is avoiding any scrutiny with lies. This man is not like the others he is dangerous and I am too inarticulate to voice the danger.
    Anyone who tries to talk to the ‘voters’ will see the power of the rabbott and Murdoch.
    Anyone who looks at the rabbott and his ideology cannot fail to see his character flaws but he is a winner and without a full scale attack on his credibility he will stay a winner because voters cannot be persuaded to look. My tirade was not nice to David and the other twit but who cares about the rabbott’s plans???
    Who cares about Professor Spurrs slurs? Not the rabbott. Who cares about the past? I do!

  18. corvus boreus

    John Lord,
    I gather Billy moir is often subjected to the tirades of rabid reactionaries at bbqs and the golf club, as they bray Abbott clichés they hear megaphoned through the commercial media(I gather he refutes such as best he can).
    I think he also feels that many folk who post on, and write for this site, are insulated from such interactions(guilty me!), and thus have a distorted ‘group-think’.
    He definitely seems disgusted with the lack of clarity and principle of policy displayed and articulated by Shorten’s Labor(with him there).
    Billy moir, sorry if I misinterpret, but the language was a bit muddy.

  19. stephentardrew

    Splendidly done corvus.

  20. Billy moir(troll???)

    Beauty Corvus, spot on the working man’s BBQ, the morning shows and school fetes are where votes are made and not on facebook or the ABC. Still it seems I have rang poor old David’s bell he still cannot see the fear I feel for my grandchildren with this amoral Jesuit believer as PM. He still cannot read but he knows I am a troll for the coalition. With that sort of understanding my words are more than muddy perhaps he is 42 and knows everything???

  21. stephentardrew

    You know Bill many years ago, as I am ancient now, workers standing around the BBQ were all lefties and if a righty came along watch out. My how things have changed.

  22. John Fraser


    If I was polling in Australia for Murdoch I would want his sales figures to know where to target the polling.

  23. Billy muddle moir

    Totally agree, stephenaredrew but many of those who were ‘left’ in our time (my dad came home from the war a commo and I loved him for it revelling in the horrors of hitler, tojo, franco and the warmongers churchill, pig-iron bob and the septictanks but all destroyed by uncle joe being exposed as the worst of them all) are influenced by the media that is all positive for the rabbott and exploits his debt crisis to sell ads making debt a real fear for today’s workers.
    Perhaps some people here can articulate the prime lie that causes hard working blue singlets to vote for the rabbott.
    In 2010 I wrote to the chaser pointing out that the rabbott had a mortgage debt of 200% of his personal ‘GDP’ yet he was constantly getting airtime describing gillard’s billions of debt as a crisis yet it was only 20% of GDP. Reucassel asked the rabbott and his answer is worth another airing.
    The labor party and Gillard made no effort to use this answer to tackle the slogan of a debt crisis relying on overseas assessment that it was a lie. (They made no effort to expose his character flaws, why?)
    Despite all evidence to the contrary the crisis of debt is real to many people in my circle of activity ranging from engineers to subbies and public servants who accept as gospel that from khemlani through banana republic to gillardian debt labor are poor economic managers.
    This certainly neither fair nor true but REAL and believed.
    Such belief is ignored by labor strategists, possibly because they believe we are too dumb to understand? But, unless dispelled by proving the debt crisis lie, (a lie that forms the basis for a terrible budget) the economy will win the rabbott the next election because if he doesn’t already own the AAA rating it is nearly his and Facebook, fetes, BBQs, golf clubs and the media are on his side. His team are a walking disaster to anyone willing to spend time researching but the polls say he is a winner ‘you bet you are’ and ‘I am less sensitive’. How sad was his ‘….shit happens’ but in 2016 ‘shit will happen…’

  24. Terry2

    ‘Just noticed a poll on the DRUM asking whether the university of Sydney was right in suspending Professor Spurr after his odd “whimsical” emails were hacked and published. Of 4000 votes 47% consider the university was wrong to suspend him and 39% thought they were right.

    Interesting response don’t you think ?

  25. Matthew Oborne

    polling doesnt take into account that the Libs will call an election at the last minute to shut out the youth vote.

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