Saturday, September 08, 2007

Horses for courses: The History of Opinion Polls in Australia

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer rejected calls today for a Coalition leadership change prior to the federal election. Prime Minister John Howard’s position has been under threat since a disastrous opinion poll earlier in the week followed by calls from high profile supporters for him to step down. There is also speculation that Howard will call an election immediately after APEC ends, possibly announcing it as early as Wednesday. However Downer has doused both theories saying there is no reason for the Prime Minister to step aside nor is there a reason to rush an election soon after APEC.

The cause of the speculation is the most recent Newspoll opinion poll for The Australian on 4 September. That poll has Labor holding a massive 14-point lead in the primary vote with 51 per cent, while the Coalition is down two points to 37 per cent. It also gave Labor a two-party preferred (2PP) lead of 59 to the Government’s 41 percent. The 2PP margin is up 8 points since the previous poll two weeks earlier. This would translate into a landslide in an election. The polls cast a shadow over Howard’s management of APEC and led to key supporters such as Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen withdrawing their support of the PM.

Opinion polls are now crucial actors in the Australian political scene. Stephen Mills in “Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture” argues that since the first Australian poll in 1941, they have been shaped by their relationship with the newspapers that pay for and publish the polls. The idea of polling was first picked up by Herald and Weekly Times chairman Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father). HWT selected 31-year-old finance journalist Roy Morgan to travel to the US and study the pioneering methods used by George Gallup. Gallup had correctly predicted the 1936 presidential election by relying on random selection rather than the then orthodox measure of massive poll size. Morgan’s first poll in 1941 for the Melbourne Herald found 59 per cent of respondents favoured equal pay for women.

Thw early days for polling were difficult. The Herald’s third poll measured caretaker PM Artie Fadden’s war effort. Fadden only lasted 40 days in the job and the poll was not ready for publication until after he was replaced by Labor’s John Curtin. Nonetheless the Morgan-HWT partnership dominated Australian public opinion polling for 30 years. Roy Morgan died in 1985 but Roy Morgan International lives on with his son Gary Morgan running the $40 million company.

The initial political polls were quite a novelty for the newspapers. The Herald told its readers that “it is not suggested that the leaders of Australia should blindly follow poll findings” but, it added, “the leaders can take steps to correct misunderstanding, where it appears to exist”. Roy Morgan operated out of the HWT building and the early poll questions were chosen by the newspaper. In 1942, they produced the first poll on voting intentions. The first poll was coy. The question was phrased: ‘If a federal election were held today, would you vote the way you did in the last election?’ The interviewers asked respondents not to state their opinion but instead to complete a ‘ballot paper’ and cast it into a simulated ‘ballot box’. Six voting intention polls were held before the practice was suspended for the remainder of the war.

Polls were resumed in the lead up to the 1946 federal election after which they became a permanent and central institution of campaign reporting. Morgan established a reputation for accuracy with widespread polling and a steady refinement of the Gallup methodology. He picked the winner of five consecutive federal elections from 1946 to 1954 within a margin of 1 percent. Morgan spread the Gallup message that pollsters were impartial scorekeeper charting the outcome of closely fought campaign and insisted that the publication of poll results was integral to the process.

By the end of the 1970s, Australian’s other newspapers had ended the HWT-Roy Morgan monopoly on opinion polling. The polls had provided the Herald with a ready staple of news that gave a precise measurement to previously intangible public opinion. They also set the agenda for public debate. Not surprisingly it was Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd who first opened up competition in 1970 when his Australian entered a joint venture with UK-based National Opinion Polls group called Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls (ANOP). The Fairfax owned Melbourne Age soon followed with an agreement with Australian Sales Research Bureau (ASRB).

The Labor party introduced modern campaign techniques of market research and advertising in its victorious “It's Time” 1972 election. It was also the first election Australian media could track the progress of the campaign through their own polls. In the 12 months prior to the election, the three pollsters ran 30 polls compared to just 11 in the same period before the 1966 election. The party leaders were also subject to 20 approval polls whereas Robert Menzies was the subject of just three polls in 23 years as Prime Minister.

The erratic poll results across the three providers fuelled Labor suspicions of anti-Labor bias in the media. They commissioned ANOP to do private survey work on their behalf. Under Rod Cameron, ANOP severed their ties with News Ltd and worked solely as Labor pollsters. They were widely credited with providing the party with the winning edge in its domination of Australian politics in the 1980s. Politically-motivated polling would play a major role in the Hawke-Hayden Labor leadership contest of 1982-1983.

Today, polls are endemic. In the 1996 two-month election campaign, three pollsters conducted 21 polls sampling 30,000 respondents, which was half the total of all of 1972. This does not include polls on more specific topics, regional polls or variations such as ‘who do you want to win?’ and ‘who do you expect to win?’ The flood has led to the prevalent form of news reporting known as the ‘horserace story’. If poll 2 follows poll 1, then poll 2 not only measures opinion, it also measures the change from poll 1. The polls become benchmarks where journalists measure expectations about outcomes which themselves become news if unexpected.

Horserace reporting dominates the front pages in the lead up to elections. “Labor up 5 points”, “Howard approval down: Newspoll”, and “Swing back to Coalition” are the typical headlines generated by these type of stories. These stories then become source material for media which did not commission the polls, and are a staple of TV news reporting. The domination of horserace reporting has profoundly changed the nature of campaign reporting. Candidates are constantly questioned about latest poll figures. In turn, candidates themselves seek to influence reports by positioning themselves as trailing the field to create an underdog effect.

Obsessive reporting about polling reinforces the tendency to cover an election as a contest and squeezes out more complex discussion on policy issues. According to American journalist EJ Dionne, it ‘highlights technique to the exclusion of substance’. Dionne said measurement not debate was becoming the stuff of American politics. His accusation applies equally to Australia.

The polls themselves are not always right. Distribution of preferential voting makes predictions difficult. Morgan polls consistently underestimated the DLP vote in elections from the late 1950s. The Age polled a 54:38 split for Labor in 1980, an election they lost. The polls were further embarrassed in 1993 when they predicted a John Hewson victory. Today, Newspoll has the reputation as Australia’s most accurate pollsters.

However the establishment pollsters may soon face a revolution if Britain’s YouGov’s internet only polling success is to be believed. YouGov is a listed six-year-old research firm that won the polling contract for London's The Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times and pay TV operator Sky. Using online voter panels, YouGov claims to have produced the most accurate voting predictions of any pollster in Britain over the last eight national and local elections with an error margin of plus or minus 1 per cent - the industry standard is plus or minus 3 per cent and has started building an online database of 50,000 registered Australian respondents.

US political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg believes this surfeit of polling has changed the nature of opinion. He says polling has “transformed [opinion] from a political potent, often disruptive force into a more docile phenomenon”. Opinion has shifted from assertion to response. Polls elicit opinion on topics the government, business or the media choose, not the public. Polls have become a tracking and targeting mechanism for governments to discover what they want to know about the public.

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