Just when we thought you’d got the knack of interpreting Newspoll results objectively and rationally, you disappoint us by reverting to your old form of squeezing the very last drop of positive news from the figures to boost the Coalition, omitting reference to aspects of the poll that don’t fit your pre-determined script, and extrapolating from the flimsiest of data to predict glory days ahead.
Many were impressed with your analyses of Newspolls during the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. We saw headlines such as ‘Newspoll blow for Turnbull’, ‘Coalition attack fails to ignite’, ‘Malcolm Turnbull up but still far behind PM Kevin Rudd’, ‘Besieged leader loosing traction’, ‘Turnbull strategy out of control’, and so on. It seemed as if you had given up on Turnbull, decided that he couldn’t lead the Coalition to victory, needed removal, and Newspoll provided some of the ammunition needed to do so. So in retrospect, it seems as if your calling of the results in a negative way for Turnbull was not just sound analysis, but grist to the mill in extruding him. We didn’t realize that at the time. We said ‘Dennis has finally got it’, and you got quite a lot of laudatory comments on your blog. We started to say ‘Good old Dennis’.
Then along came Tony Abbott. I bet your were as surprised as most others, but being stuck with him now as Coalition leader, probably until the 2010 election, you felt moved to do your bit to support the Coalition cause. While Turnbull was there it seemed as if you felt your best contribution was to urge his removal so someone more promising could be installed.
Then out came Newspoll, less than a week after Abbott was elected leader, but in your mind giving sufficient time for the public to have made some judgement about his suitability. So your search for promising signs began, and, judging from your headlines, you were not disappointed: ‘Voters switching back to Coalition’ and ‘Abbott gamble pays off for Libs’. Reading these pieces, I looked for the evidence on which such stark headlines were based. Of course you quoted the two by-election results which you said showed a swing to the Liberals. Even acknowledging the distorting effects of Labor not fielding a candidate in either, that was true in Higgins where, according to Antony Green the swing to the Liberal candidate is 0.8% as of today, but in Bradfield the swing is 3.3% against the Liberal candidate. So only one seat shows a swing to the Liberal candidate, and adding the swings in the two seats gives a net swing of 2.5% against the Liberals. Now we know it’s a bit silly to add them together, but if you are going to make assertions about a ‘swing to the Liberals’, at least give us the evidence. And let’s not confuse ourselves by talking about the TPP when the field did not include one of the major parties which always feature in TPP figures.
But let’s leave the by-elections and look at the Newspoll results. What is the evidence for the header ‘Voters switching back to Coalition’? Near the end of your article you say “The Liberal vote rose four points to 34 per cent after dropping to 30 per cent during the mess over the ETS and the leadership.” Correct, but your header said voters were switching back to the Coalition. Now the truth is that the Liberal primary vote went up four points to 34% because it took one point from The Nationals, one from The Australian Greens, two from ‘Others’, but none from Labor, which remained on 43%. The Coalition primary vote went up by three points, not four, to 38%. Yet ‘four points’ seemed to be the message you wished to transmit. You did it again in ‘Abbott gamble pays off for Libs’. Yes, it’s a bit pedantic to argue such points, but if you’re quoting data to make political points why display it a way that could deceive the less analytical reader?
In the first-mentioned piece you did not reveal the Newspoll TPP of 56/44, which was little different from the previous week’s 57/43, and the same as the poll before that. You did mention it in the second piece but made no comparison with previous polls. 56/44 has consistently been the average TPP for a couple of years now, so I’m sure you’d have to agree that nothing has changed despite Nelson, Turnbull and now Abbott.
The other stat you seized upon was the PPM ratings, on which you seemed to place great store – you even started the ‘Abbott gamble pays off...’ piece with “Liberal Party support has bounced back and Tony Abbott has cut into Kevin Rudd's lead as preferred prime minister within a week of the newly elected Leader of the Opposition spectacularly reversing the Liberals' stand on climate change and rejecting Labor's ETS”. We all know the reciprocal relationship between the PM’s score and the Opposition Leader’s score on the PPM – as one goes up, the other goes down (except if the ‘Uncommitteds’ change). If in the public’s first assessment of the new leader his score was better than his predecessor’s at his lowest ebb, we ought not to be surprised, and of course that will bring the PM’s rating down commensurately. You did not point out that Rudd was still sitting on a 60% figure, only that he “..fell five points...” and that Abbott had “...a rise of nine points compared with Mr Turnbull's 14 per cent the previous weekend.” although all Abbott could muster was 23%.
But is it as good for Abbott as it might superficially look to you? No doubt you’ve now had the benefit of reading Possum Pollytics: Newspoll Tuesday – No Bounce Edition where he displays all the ratings for mid-term leadership changes and comments “Abbott gave not only the worst debut result of any Opposition leader that has taken control of the party mid-term, but was also the second lowest Uncommitted result of any new Opposition leader (including those that took control immediately after an election defeat). Only Beazley Mk 2 had a lower level of Uncommitteds, suggesting that Tony Abbott is a significantly known quantity in the electorate, meaning there isn’t much fat in the figures.” Aristotle too quotes the figures in Oz Election Forums and likewise concludes “The change to Tony Abbott has resulted in no significant change in voting intentions, and his Better Prime Minister ratings are the lowest of all new mid-term Opposition Leaders. This doesn't augur well for 2010. Tony Abbott always had the lowest poll ratings of all potential Liberal leaders and those low poll ratings, measured against his own colleagues, are now colliding with the stratospheric poll ratings of Kevin Rudd. The result is the poorest start for any new mid-term Opposition Leader.”
Clearly your enthusiasm and optimism is not shared by competent statistical analysts using the same data set. Maybe you know something they don’t, something none of us know.
You also made a play about Abbott being preferred over Turnbull, by a whopping 28% of those polled, but you didn’t point out that 62% thought he would be ‘worse or no different’ than Turnbull (21% worse, 41% the same). Surely that is the most telling statistic. But you did point out that Abbott’s strongest endorsement was from Coalition supporters – 45% over Turnbull 10% – hardly a remarkable finding at a time of leadership upheaval, but of course compatible with your views about the two men. You went on to elaborate how Abbott had outperformed Turnbull in almost every category. It would be alarming indeed if the newly elected leader was not well in front of the previous leader who was at his lowest point, and during the very week of his extrusion.
Look as I did in both articles, I could find no reference to another Newspoll result – the satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating of the PM; no mention of the fact that it rose four points during the very week that Abbott, according to your assessment, did so well. How could the PM’s popularity go up while Abbott’s was soaring so spectacularly? I wondered why you didn’t give it a mention – it was the only stat you left out.
So, Dennis, what should we conclude from your latest foray into Newspoll interpretation? You will recall with chagrin the comments that your interpretations of Newspoll in the last Howard year evoked, the angry criticism of what so many saw as your seriously biased reporting. You will remember the article you penned criticizing the impertinent bloggers who had the temerity to question your analyses; you will recall the angry editorial in The Australian demeaning bloggers, suggesting they were not journalists’ bootlaces, and should get a real job. Yet after that you seemed to be more circumspect in your analyses, and latterly you have been applauded for your frankness in calling the results correctly no matter if damaging to the Coalition and its leader. Then along comes Abbott and it feels like we’re back to the Howard days of biased interpretation, selective use of results, and omission of those that don’t fit your script.
Please don’t disappoint us again. Stick to the facts, all of them, analyse them objectively, report them without fear or favour, interpret them with statistical integrity, and once more the plaudits will flow.
There’s no need to be fearful of Uncle Rupert – he’s always been a stickler for the truth.
In case you can’t imagine what an unbiased analysis of the last Newspoll might look like, try this:
Coalition makes small gains in latest Newspoll
A Newspoll taken from 4 to 6 December, at the end of the week Tony Abbott was elected Leader of the Opposition, the Coalition’s primary vote rose by three percentage points to 38% at the expense of The Australian Greens (one point) and ‘Others’ (two points). Labor’s primary vote was unchanged on 43%. In two party preferred terms, Labor was 56% and the Coalition 44%. The Newspoll last week was 57/43 and the poll before that 56/44, the average figure over the last two years.
In the Better Prime Minister stakes Kevin Rudd was on 60%, down five points from the last poll, while Tony Abbott in his first poll rated 23%, nine points above Malcolm Turnbull’s last and worst poll.
No satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating was done on Mr Abbott as he had been in his new job only a few days. Mr Rudd improved his rating by four points to 58/32, with 10% undecided.
In response to the question ‘Will Abbott be a better leader than Turnbull?’ 28% said yes, 21% no, and 41% said ‘about the same’, giving a total of 62% who feel Abbott will be worse or the same as Turnbull.
The poll was on 1152 phone interviews and the margin of error was estimated to be 3%.
The Coalition has clearly made small gains in its primary vote at the expense of the Greens and ‘Others’, the TPP is virtually unchanged, and Mr Abbott has polled better than his predecessor in the Better PM stakes, narrowing the gap in the last week from 65/14 to 60/23. Kevin Rudd's personal popularity has increased marginally.
Not very exciting Dennis, not headline grabbing, but at least factual and honest, and certainly not endeavouring to score political points.