Note: For links to updated analysis re NXT written since this article, scroll to the bottom.
I have had a fair few questions about the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and their seat prospects for the Lower House in South Australia, because my seat projection nationwide still shows only four seats for Others. This rather dry and mathsy piece (about Wonk Factor 3/5) explains my initial attempts to model what sort of vote NXT needs in South Australia, all else being equal, to win one or more of the 11 Lower House seats in the state. These are very broad-brush attempts that don't take account of candidate factors, because until there is specific seat-polling we don't know anything objectively about how well (or badly) specific NXT candidates are going to campaign or be regarded. Comments based on detailed local knowledge are welcome.
In summary, I estimate that NXT probably need a statewide vote in the very high teens to win seats. Once they get well over 20 they start to win multiple seats, and something in the mid-20s could result in spectacular seat gains that would make a national hung parliament quite likely. However there's no reason yet to believe those higher votes will actually happen, based on what little current public polling of the NXT vote exists.
The NXT Lower House run was initially seen as an insurance strategy. In 2013 NXT nearly polled enough vote for two Senate seats but was ganged up on by other parties in preference-dealing, resulting in Labor preferences putting Family First's Bob Day into the Senate instead of NXT's second candidate Stirling Griff. Although how-to-vote cards will be less important in the Senate this election, by running Lower House candidates Xenophon can cause seat losses for any major party that tries to damage his preference flow in the Senate, giving him an insurance strategy he probably wishes he had last time.
It's worth briefly noting a history of near-wins of third-party seats in SA. The Australian Democrats polled 15.3% statewide in 1990 but did not come all that close to winning any seat. Janine Haines (leader) missed second place in the cutup in Kingston by 7.4%. In Mayo the Democrats candidate missed second place by just 2% but it was irrelevant as Alexander Downer had an outright majority. A famous closer miss came in 1998 when the Democrats' Jon Schumann came second in Mayo (although the statewide Democrats vote was only 10%). Schumann needed 86% of preferences to beat Downer and got 81% of them, losing 51.7:48.3. The 1998 result provides a template for what NXT need to do to win seats: outpoll or overtake one major party then win on their preferences over the other. It is assumed that both majors will preference NXT ahead of each other, or that if they do not do so then their voters will do it for them.
What is NXT polling?
The only national polls that currently include NXT in the "readout" are Morgan and, recently, ReachTEL. The national vote for NXT isn't relevant because the party is only going to run in selected non-SA seats and isn't remotely likely to win any of them (an amusing shot at a certain northern beaches relic in NSW notwithstanding). What is of interest is the SA vote.
Morgan have released seven fortnightly readings of the NXT support level starting in late January. These have been (in order) 22.5, 15, 16.5, 18, 18, 22.5 and 22.5, an average of 19.3%; the sample size would typically be a few hundred making these results very wobbly. The single SA ReachTEL reading for Morgan so far (from their April 14 poll) was 17%. I consider ReachTEL more reliable than Morgan, especially as Morgan's combination of methods (SMS and face-to-face) are both prone to overcapture enthusiastic voters, and ReachTEL has the better track record than either of Morgan's current methods. However we will need to see more ReachTEL polling in view of sample size issues to see whether this particular sample was representative.
Other polls that lump NXT with "others" in their SA samples could well be under-recording the NXT vote, but it's worth noting that they generally do point to even lower NXT figures than the above before that is taken into account.
There has been one seatpoll of Mayo in January in which NXT were on 16.3% after redistributing the undecided. That ReachTEL poll had them competitive for second place, but requiring 91% of preferences assuming they could come second, which is too much. Still, a winnable position would be within that poll's margins of error, even then. That is a very old poll now in the context of a new party campaign.
Other polling reported has often showed NXT in an extremely competitive position in Mayo and Sturt especially, but this has always been union polling or internal party polling and none has been released in an adequately documented form. Also, this result hasn't been unanimous, with an AMWU-commissioned ReachTEL showing NXT on only 14.5% in Sturt and 12% in Hindmarsh (add a percent or two for undecided voters). Seat polling is never very reliable at the best of times. A recent tweet from commercial radio station Fiveaa (5AA) is of interest here:
(By comparison, NXT polled 28% in both seats at the last Senate election.)
The "David" in the tweet above is David Penberthy, who has many more such reports (including a suggestion that major party polling has NXT set for four seats with the Greens winning zero - which I find hard to believe given that the Greens shouldn't need a full quota).
Poll Bludger reports seeing an Australia Institute commissioned ReachTEL that has the Team at 24.8% in the Senate but only 16.1% in the Reps and notes that such a disparity seems unlikely.
Where do NXT votes come from?
Modelling whether NXT can win seats is not just about predicting their vote share and using past evidence of seat-based performance to project the size of the NXT vote. It is complex because it is also necessary to model how much damage NXT might do to Lower House major party votes and hence whether NXT can get into second.
So, how do we get a handle on which parties NXT might take votes from?
Across the nation but excluding South Australia, the major parties typically polled a few points worse in the Senate than the Reps (as they usually do), while the Greens polled about the same in both (except in Tasmania where their Reps vote was smashed by Andrew Wilkie). Obvious non-SA exceptions were NSW where the Coalition did 13 points worse in the Senate, and WA where the Coalition did 8 points worse. Both were caused largely by confusion with the Liberal Democrats who had good ballot draws in both those states.
In SA Labor polled 13.1 points worse in the Senate while the Liberals polled 17 points worse. The Greens polled 1.2 points worse and Family First polled 1.7 points worse. SA also had a Liberal Democrat issue, so it may seem that Xenophon was taking votes more or less equally from the major parties and very few from anyone else.
What I found, however, is that there is a reasonably strong correlation between how badly the Labor Party does in the Senate compared to the Reps in SA electorates, and how much the total vote for Others increased in the Senate compared to the Reps (where Others in this case excludes both majors, the Greens, FF, NXT and LDP). Thus, Labor was not only bleeding Senate votes to Xenophon, but also to a massive list of micros. This was less so for the Liberals with the exception of the LDP.
On this basis (and independently via regression) I determined that Xenophon probably had more Lower House Liberal voters on board than Lower House ALP voters. But this isn't because Liberal voters are more attracted to his ideas, it is just because there were more of them. Supporters of each party were about equally likely to vote NXT in the Senate.
I also found that a strong predictor of the extent to which the major parties would underperform in the Senate compared to the Reps was simply the size of their Reps vote in a given electorate.
Modelling NXT damage to major party vote shares
So in trying to model the Xenophon primary vote in electorates, at a first pass, I assumed it would be proportional to his Senate vote in 2013 (Mayo, Boothby and Sturt highest, Grey lowest). To model the damage he would do to the other parties, I allowed 24% of his vote to come from non-major sources and allowed the rest to come more or less proportionally from both majors (actually it seems Labor voters were trivially more likely to have backed him in the Senate), with the amount lost by the majors also proportional to the Xenophon state vote share. On this basis I can then input an estimated NXT state primary and get a crude projection for each seat, that ignores things like sophomore effect, candidate quality, the possibility of Labor running dead in some seats, regional effects of submarine construction debates and so on. Most importantly, the crude version ignores any possible state swings between Liberal and Labor. (The current evidence from Bludgertrack is that they're minor, but we'll see if that remains so closer to the election).
To get Xenophon's team in a winning position in most seats, it's necessary to get them above Labor and with the Coalition far enough short of 50% that the mountain can be climbed on preferences. In some seats, it's the other way around. Provided that the NXT candidate stays in second after Green preferences (which might cause Labor to overtake them in some cases - a big unknown!) the NXT candidate should get almost every Green or Labor preference ahead of the Coalition and might win. But preference flows of well above 80% might be hard for NXT since many SA seats have quite high Family First votes and these may favour the Coalition, or at least split sufficiently between NXT and the Coalition to dampen the overall preference flow.
Here are some example outputs of the basic projection. The "Share Req" column gives the percentage of preferences NXT would need ahead of the leading major party in that seat, on the assumption that they reach the final two. In some cases this share might be low but they might not have a chance of making the top two, in which cases the share required becomes irrelevant. I can't stress strongly enough that these projections don't really aim to predict results for specific seats (there are all kinds of factors not included in this model, and reasons why it might be inaccurate in given cases) but they aim to give a reasonable overall picture of the conversion of votes to seats.
Because of variations in seat patterns, if I project NXT as ahead of a given party by a small margin off a certain statewide vote, it could be that they really end up slightly behind, and vice versa.
1. NXT statewide vote is 17%:
In this scenario, NXT places second ahead of Labor on primaries in Mayo and (by 0.1%) in Barker. However the mountain is too steep in Mayo (86.5% of preferences needed) and especially in Barker, where the "rest" includes the Nationals. On this basis it seems difficult for NXT to win any seat off 17% of the statewide vote, though a very concentrated attack on Mayo or perhaps Sturt, with good candidates, might pull one off. Boothby is also of some interest because the preference share required there is lower and NXT aren't too far off second.
17% is by no means the lowest possible State vote for NXT; I just use it as a starting point for where they could start being competitive.
2. NXT statewide vote is 20%:
In this scenario, NXT should win Mayo, since the preference share they need is more or less exactly what the Democrats got. They probably don't win Barker given that the "rest" column includes the Nationals. They're also competitive for second in Boothby and Sturt and should at least win Boothby on preferences if second there. So, probably one or two seats.
3. NXT statewide vote is 22%:
This starts to show how dangerous NXT become if they make it into the low 20s in the Reps (bear in mind that in 2013 they polled 24.9% in the Senate). They are second in four seats in this projection, and while some of those are close and winning Barker is still dubious, there's also the strong possibility of passing the Coalition on preferences in Kingston and winning there. So, probably three seats, maybe four.
4. NXT statewide vote is 25%:
This is the mayhem scenario. Off a state Reps vote that is basically what they got in the Senate last time, NXT would be second in six seats and fighting for second in two others (in one of which they could well move into second), with only Adelaide and Wakefield (where the major party votes are too high) and Grey (where NXT has little traction) not in play. They could win 6-8 seats off a quarter of the primary votes.
Note: The "mayhem scenario" is very sensitive to the balance of major party votes. Reducing the Labor vote and increasing the Coalition's makes NXT's chances much lower.
As usual we need to be careful about the more exotic results being suggested in these cases. At this stage the public polling generally has NXT well below its Senate result from last time in the Reps. There is also concern about whether the Xenophon Team candidates will poll well when voters realise they are just voting for the Xenophon ticket in the Lower House and not for the man himself. Xenophon tickets which don't have Xenophon as a candidate don't do nearly as well (as seen in the last SA election where the "Independent Nick Xenophon Team" polled 12.9%. Maybe this will be different when he is running for the Senate at the same time.
Xenophon notoriously inflicted eight years of Ann Bressington on the SA upper house, and there is good reason to be cautious about his team being a magnet for anti-vaxxers or suffering from other quality control issues, as fourth parties often do. I suspect his candidate-screening will prove better than PUP's, but that is not saying much.
The issue of Green preferences in cases where NXT fights Labor for second is a tricky one. My suspicion is that even if Green voters do prefer Labor to NXT, they won't do so strongly enough to allow Labor to catch NXT from more than, say, 2-3% behind, and that this could also be softened by micro-parties preferencing NXT ahead of Labor.
The other possibility is that one major party gets sick of NXT and decides to scuttle them by either putting them behind the Liberals, or issuing an open ticket in seats that major party cannot win. If Labor for some reason does this then most of the possible NXT wins go completely off the table, requiring NXT to poll very well indeed to maybe take a seat or two on Liberal preferences. However it makes more strategic sense for majors to preference NXT and force each other to waste resources fighting for otherwise safe seats. This only changes if NXT looks to be winning a given seat easily.
This model is all highly experimental and feedback on its doubtless many flaws is welcome. But until something better comes along, it shows the sort of approach I'm going to be using to converting polled NXT vote shares roughly into expected seats. At the moment the available neutral polling is not showing NXT in a position where it would be all that likely to win Lower House seats. However, that could quickly change.
I'll add links to other attempts as I come across them. For starters, Henry Schlechta presents the case for zero Xenophon MHRs, including that dastardly Liberals might even vote 1 Labor to try to eliminate NXT!
(This piece was updated on 28 April to add a few more commissioned poll results.)
Note added 1 June: See more updated coverage of the NXT's prospects here.
Note added 10 June: A rather remarkable seat poll of Grey has NXT winning that seat, which is amusing given that Grey is the worst seat for NXT in the above projection! Of course, the projection does not consider local issues that may have increased NXT's appeal to voters since the 2013 election, so we should keep in mind that these projections are only all-else-being-equal and that in reality NXT might win a seat anywhere in SA. Seat polls are quite unreliable so this extraordinary result should be treated with caution.
Note added 16 June: Some more Xenophonia over here, based on a detailed Morgan release.
Note added 29 June: Yet more added here. NXT's own internal polling is interesting when applied to the model because the model is not so keen on its chances even from a primary vote of 24%, if the balance between the major parties is altered slightly in favour of the Liberals.