It’s a journalist’s favourite tool in the arsenal (or certainly at least in my own observation). When all talents have been exhausted, all feature length story ideas penned out on paper and breaking news is experiencing a lulled period, go to the token story:
This piece is about the proliferation of polls, our obsession with them, the trust we place in them and in turn, why election campaigns have turned them into a necessary evil (emphasis on evil). I’ll also insert some small comment towards the end about why I tend to loathe polls.
(If only you were funny, Steve Carell… or at least got yourself some good writers.)
The proliferation of the poll
Now to give some credit to the people who actually do polling and/or psephology for a living, their role is important. A well-intentioned poll with a small margin of error and a healthy sample size helps steer the direction for good coverage of an election campaign. On election night, psephologists and data crunchers are the engine room that fuel what the presenters say and what the pundits cry about.
A good poll can also happen any time and be set up for any particular purpose. For instance, polling aggregates can tell us what the immediate effect of Josh Frydenberg’s Budget speech was. There were polls that showed the Liberal Party’s collapse (minus 4 percent, fairly unprecedented stuff) when Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as Prime Minister only to be replaced by the equally moderate and less popular Scott Morrison.
Most importantly, a strong poll with a healthy precedent for skepticism where needed provides the public a chance to respond during the election campaign giving the media, the political parties and other stakeholders an idea of where the results may be going and how the landscape has changed over time. Hence, why I called polling a “necessary evil” rather than just an outright evil.
But if we take a step back for just a moment, let’s consider a couple of things. Firstly, how many polls are out there? Well if you just count the major ones most utilised by news organisations in Australia – four. Four different poll results for only 16.3 million voters (note, we’re not talking about poll aggregates, just the individual companies whose results furnish the information to the poll aggregates). Seriously?!
That’s just four main ones, by the way: Ipsos (representing Fairfax/Nine); ReachTel (7 Network); Newspoll (Newscorp) and Essential (Guardian Media). But there’s plenty of others – Roy Morgan do a version, so does Gallup, YouGov, Galaxy and an array of others which aren’t published in the major papers but also do the same kind of work. But just think about that: there are tons of national polls asking the same questions as each other. Surely I’m not the only that finds this ridiculous?
The other thing worth mentioning at this point is the “exclusivity” of these polls. The Australian, for instance, is always more than obliging to brand Newspoll as a HUGE exclusive with bold, red lettering and a splash all over the front page. The SMH and The Age are equally ‘smh’ worthy with their obsession over the Ipsos poll and so on and so forth. Please – people – it’s a poll not the bloody final election result. Calm.
Obsession and Trust
One thing is sadly true about our business – to be read, you must be attracted to. Voters want to see the polls, and are only too thrilled if their own disposition is winning the race. At the same time, any journalism class will teach you (and they are right to do so) that the average voter is well informed (enough) and makes the right decision for their own lives.
But here in lies the problem: when there are so many polls with different methodologies and different editorial biases interpreting those polls, of course everyone has their own disposition. Nowhere was this more clear than just a couple of days ago when this photo showed up on my feed:
Two very different headlines for two polls which essentially wanted to show the same thing. One felt that Scott Morrison had started his big comeback and the other didn’t believe that the shift was big enough to warrant anything substantial.
So who’s right? Well according to the poll aggregator BludgerTrack, the Liberal/National government’s two party preferred improvement was 0.3% in the weeks after the Budget. It’s an improvement – but it’s miniscule in comparison to where they need to be if they want to stage the comeback of all comebacks.
In the trust topic by the way, we’re fairly lucky to have polls that are generally well calculated and reliable. Unlike of course in the United States where the pollsters don’t know what to do because they don’t know how many respondents have just lied to them. (See Trump’s victory, 2016) …in the UK, election night only has one exit poll – the broadcasters share the responsibility of it being right (or in 1992’s case, very wrong.) What I’m saying is: be skeptical of what you read – and especially what the interpretations of such numbers produce.
Of course, no one will listen to me – as this article from The Conversation beautifully summates it:
“Obsessive poll-watching has become standard practice for politicians…A new poll is “news” because it provides the latest measure of the mood of the electorate, which is what everyone wants to know…When Turnbull lost his 30th straight Newspoll, the media made it feel like a death knell.”Ian Cook of Murdoch University, writing in The Conversation (October 2018)
When people ask me about what I think about the polls, the truth is I don’t really pay a lot of attention to them. This is particularly true for election campaigns in the Westminster tradition (aka OURS!). Firstly, we have to realise these polls are national. They ring 2000 people (or whatever it is), get their views and smash together a projection in relative to their last projection.
We don’t know where these people are being rung from. We don’t know what electorates they represent, and especially if they’ve made up their minds already. Most importantly, we don’t know how truthful these respondents are.
In this sense, it’s worth pointing out that our system is a seat-by-seat race. Not every seat counts as much as others – that’s why we have marginal seats. But every seat produces a result – something no poll can realistically do unless they send a pollster to every single one of the 151 electorates in Australia and calculated it THAT way. Which is impossible, ineffective and expensive: so we can rule that dream out!
Secondly, polls are projections. They make up their minds based on a mathematical model … and as Keynesian economists will tell you: can come with a lot of pitfalls. Every model has its imperfections, and while polling is a necessary part of our campaign for everyone involved – it’s not always healthy or for that matter, right. While aggregates can help you look out for the total product, polls by themselves are STILL only projections (something a lot of voters in my own experience still haven’t quite worked out.)
Lastly, I realise polls are a necessary evil. They are there, they’re welcome by a lot of people and they provide a gauge that nothing else can quite stand up to. I accept that they need to remain and accept that news organisations who undertake their own polling really do it because that’s what they believe will enhance their coverage of events. But I beg you Australian pollsters – PLEASE don’t go down the route of the Americans. Who now have to resort to seeing these kinds of exit polls:
For the love of God – we don’t need to be segmented by race, age, gender, income, religious affiliation, when we decided our vote etc etc. — we all get one vote each. And that’s the beauty (and peril) of democracy.
And if you want to read more on this, our dear Lord (Paula) has written about this subject too. We don’t share exactly the same views, and I promise you – when I pitched this topic to her, it was a pure coincidence that I found out we have actually quite similar disdain for polls. But I love her way of expressing things, and I find you will too: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-19/matthewson-addicted-to-polls-election/4895314