Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Poll Roundup: 2014 Year Review

2PP aggregate: 53.7 to ALP (+0.3 since last week)
ALP would easily win election "held now"

We're just about at the end of the federal polling season, an end which for the government can't possibly come soon enough.  If last year's polling is any guide, we may get one more ReachTEL at the end of this week and then that would likely be it until Morgan and Essential started up again in mid-January with the rest following a few weeks later. I thought I'd summarise some stats about this polling year, but first a quick look at this week's polls so far.

I should note first that a significant event this week - the Martin Place siege - could affect voting intention to some degree, and that incident was not reflected in any of this week's polling.  The past history of this government is that its polling improves temporarily and modestly when national security is in the spotlight.  Because of the scarcity of polls over the holiday season there may not be a lot to look at by way of evidence, and it remains to be seen whether this disturbing incident will be perceived as a terror issue as much as a run-of-the-mill failure of the domestic justice system. 

This week's polling

Newspoll produced a result almost identical to the fortnight before, again 54:46 to ALP.  However, the primaries (39 Labor, 38 Coalition, 12 Green, 11 Other) were slightly more favourable than the previous reading.  Tony Abbott again recorded a poor netsat, down one to -25 (33% satisfied, 58% dissatisfied), little better than the -31 he slumped to during the bad post-budget polling.  Bill Shorten returned another nondescript reading of -6 and Shorten again led as "better" Prime Minister by seven points (44:37 this time).

Morgan produced its best result for Labor since early June, and its equal second-best of the year so far, with a 56.5% 2PP by 2013 election preferences (57.5% respondent-allocated).  This translates to about 55:45 once Morgan's house effect is considered.  It was a 3.5-point shift from the previous Morgan, but the aggregate suggests that this was mostly random sample noise.

Essential followed its common pattern of behaving contrarily to the trend by coming out with a merely 52:48 result to the ALP.  Showing its usual strange under-dispersed behaviour, its last eighteen consecutive readings have been either 52 or 53 in a time in which the change in aggregated polling has been at least 2.7 points according to my end-of-week aggregates and 3.9 points according to the weekly Bludger Track readings.  The changes over this time would be even higher without including Essential.

Essential had some unusual findings about the result of the next election.  Questions of this kind are very hard to poll successfully because voters are prone to give wishful-thinking answers rather than their honest belief about outcomes.  Nonetheless, given the usual advantage to governments on such questions, it's interesting that 46% of Essential respondents think Labor are most likely to win the next election, compared to just 27% for the Coalition.  Labor (84-6) and Greens (66-7) supporters are especially confident while Coalition supporters believe their side will retain government (64-16).  Others supporters (40-16 to Labor with 44% undecided) are about as vague as usual.

Essential also had 29% of its respondents believing Tony Abbott is likely to lead the Liberal Party to the next election compared to 51% considering him unlikely, and here it is notable that only 50% of Coalition supporters considered it likely he would do so (to 29% unlikely).  Supporters of all parties consider it likely (47-20) that Bill Shorten will lead Labor to the next election, but as usual this question is marred by Essential's way-too-high don't-know rates to issues questions.

These results take my aggregate for now to 53.7% to Labor, but my aggregate is fairly conservative in its weighting of the newest data, and quite willing to accept input from Essential (which is off on a tangent again) and Ipsos (which is new and not yet thoroughly benchmarked).  A figure as high as the mid-54s would therefore not be too hard to argue some sort of case for.  This week's Bludger Track is at 54.2.

 The smoothed tracking graph shows that the Coalition's position is currently as dire as at any time other than the worst five weeks of budget-blowout (mid-May to mid-June).  The current "relapse" has still to peak and has now been building for over two months. 

2014 in review

At the time of writing there have been 125 federal 2PP polls released this year: 49 Essentials, 26 Morgan multi-modes, 21 Newspolls,  11 ReachTELs, six Galaxys, six Nielsens, three Ipsos I-views, two Fairfax-Ipsos and a single Morgan phone.

Of these - using 2013 election preferences for the Morgans and Fairfax-Ipsos - just eight (one Newspoll, two Nielsens and five Essentials) had Coalition leads, the last of these in early April.  One Nielsen had the Coalition up 52:48. A further seven (five Essentials, one Galaxy and one Ipsos I-View) had 50-50 ties, and the remaining 110, including all 91 taken since mid-April, have had Labor ahead.

Morgan multi-mode has a blatant house effect to Labor worth about 1.5 points (actually on average 1.4).  If this is taken into account then two Morgan multi-modes early in the year become Coalition leads and one in October becomes a tie.

The strongest result for Labor in one poll was the 59:41 one-week Morgan release in early June, which becomes 57.5% accounting for house effect.  However this reflects a post-hoc decision by the pollster to release a split sample.  Had the sample not been split it would have come out to either 56.5 or 57 (55 or 55.5 allowing for house effect).  The highest other recording for the ALP all year was a 56 from Nielsen in May.  55s (including 56.5s from Morgan) happened several times - Morgan twice apart from the early June case, Newspoll three times and Galaxy once.

The average reading in my polling aggregate for the year was 52.1% to Labor.  Looking at Newspoll data back to 1986, Oppositions only had it so good in 1991 (54.2), 1995 (52.3), 2007 (56.2), 2011 (54.7), 2012 (54.0), and 2013 up to the election (54.1).  The last PM, as distinct from government, to be re-elected after such a bad 2PP calendar year in office was Fraser (1979). The other pre-Newspoll years where governments probably trailed as badly or worse on average were 1952, 1953, 1962, 1974 (Whitlam re-elected mid-year) and 1975. 

In all, of governments that have polled this badly or worse on average through a calendar year that did not have an election in the middle of it, four were re-elected (one after changing PM) and three lost. 

Tony Abbott recorded negative Newspoll netsats in all 21 Newspolls this year, with a "high" of -5 and a low of -31.  In the Newspoll era, negative netsats were recorded by the incumbent PM throughout each of the years 1990-1995 (two years of Hawke and four of Keating) and also throughout 2012 (Gillard).  Pre Newspoll data are sparser (and only go back to the late 60s) but McMahon was in the red for all of 1972.  Fraser was apparently in negative territory according to Morgan for all of 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1982 but I'd be inclined to ignore the first and third of those given the closeness of some readings and the scarcity of polls in these days. Anyway both Fraser and Keating survived at least one calendar year of entirely negative netsats on their way to re-election.

Bill Shorten's netsats (high of +3, low of -11) were notable mainly for being steady to the point of boredom.  In fact, the gap of 14 points between Shorten's lowest and highest ratings is the smallest such gap for an Opposition Leader ever. Despite these nondescript ratings, Shorten actually beat Tony Abbott as "better Prime Minister" in Newspoll this year by an average of 0.8 points.  That may not sound like much, but preferred PM scores are massively skewed to incumbents, and normally even with the 2PP at an average of 52:48, Shorten would have been expected to trail by several points.

In fact, in the 23 calendar years since this question was regularly polled, this is only the third calendar year in which the Opposition Leader has been rated the better PM by voters.  This previously happened in 1992 (Hewson over Keating by 2.9 points) and 1995 (Howard over Keating by 2.8 points, ignoring the two Alexander Downer ratings in January).  Even the combination of low voting intention and poor personal ratings for a PM does not create such years - it has to be also the case that the Opposition Leader is not too badly regarded.


It may be of interest to note some current betting figures.  The Coalition has generally been favoured to win the next election through the year, though not heavily (1.50-ish vs 2.50-ish for instance).  Now, Sportsbet has both parties at 1.85, though the Coalition is still favourite on Sportingbet (1.77 vs 2.05).   It's hard to avoid suspecting that punters are taking a lead from the Victorian result as an indicator that one-term governments are increasingly likely federally.  If so this is fallacious reasoning: one-term governments are historically more likely at state level because of the impact of federal drag, and the Napthine government also had a very thin cushion against adverse swing.  However the current run of bad federal polls probably says more against the Coalition's chances than the post-budget wave, because its causes are less obvious.

Sportsbet odds imply a perceived 43% chance of Abbott facing a leadership ballot before the next election, most likely in 2016.  Abbott is still, however, at $1.60 to lead the Coalition to the next election, compared to $3.50 for the fancied replacement of the moment, Julie Bishop.  Sportingbet still has Abbott at $1.30 and Bishop at $7.50 to be PM at the next election, and I suspect its exchanges react more slowly. 

Overall picture

In 2014 the government started the year narrowly trailing on the two-party vote, but not by enough to be likely to lose an election if held at the time.  This changed with a major polling blowout in early May, around the time of the release of one of the least popular federal Budgets ever - a Budget that has now been extensively watered-down.

A focus on national security issues following the loss of dozens of Australian lives in the shooting down of MH-17 over Ukraine, and again following increasing prominence of ISIL terrorism, either coincided with or caused (probably the latter) improvement in the government's standing, and caused some easing in Tony Abbott's unpopularity.  By early October the government had recovered to about its pre-budget position, but this recovery seems to have been an aberration, as it has now been followed by a serious relapse.

Historical polling precedents do not yet support the belief that the government is doomed.  They generally suggest its re-election chances are about even or slightly better.  However, it is difficult to reliably apply such precedents, because they mostly involve governments that were later than first-term, or at least late in their first term, and that had been popular for some time.

2014 was supposed to be the government's "year of delivery" but voter backlashes and a messy Senate have meant that not that much has been delivered.  Will 2015 be any better?  I've added a Not-A-Poll on the sidebar for readers who would like to try predicting when (if ever) the government's fortunes will recover.

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