Saturday, February 28, 2015

New South Wales Roundup: Is Even This A Bridge Too Far?

Time to kick off some NSW state election analysis, much of it in broad and general terms.  I haven't done the usual seat-modelling yet; that will follow in a week or two.

Feds Will Destroy Everything

A common theme on this website is the massive influence of which party holds power federally on state elections.  While this impact is not obvious in every election, and isn't even present in a few, there is a long-established pattern that is the very first thing anybody looking at state elections needs to know.  Once a party has been in government federally for any length of time at all, it starts tending to shed seats in state elections.  This process continues until it has lost most if not all of the states, and not long after that it will probably lose federally as well.  A new federal government comes in with massive majorities in many states, and then starts losing those.  Rinse and repeat.

Since the Liberal-National Coalition came to power federally it has faced four state elections, winning only Tasmania where an ancient Labor government could not escape retribution for a deeply disliked coalition with the Greens.  This happened while the federal government was still relatively new.  However, the Coalition has also lost office in Victoria and Queensland and failed to win in South Australia.  The Victorian result was no surprise, SA was a vaguely forgiveable case of electoral geography 1, 2PP vote 0, but the Queensland result was an earthquake.  The government that had won office with a record majority only three years earlier, almost wiping its predecessor out of Parliament, was sent packing (by one seat) with a 14% swing against it.  The LNP's aggressive and divisive born-to-rule approach in office had done it no favours but things would have been very different had Julia Gillard still been in the Lodge.

With declining levels of rusted-on adherence to both major parties, there's just no such thing any more as a win so big that you cannot possibly waste it in a single term.  That applies especially when the prevailing wind from Canberra is not in a party's favour.  In fact, the idea that a seat margin at one election determines the seat margin at the next is overrated anyway - what winning big really does is just gives a party a lot of seats in which it has new personal votes.  It turns out that in NSW even that doesn't apply much this time around.  So is there such a thing as an election that is too hard to lose, or is nothing actually safe in state politics anymore?

Polling Trajectory

A poll tracker posted by William Bowe last September shows that the Liberal government in NSW has led comfortably through its term.  There may have actually been a slight dip followed by a rebound around the time (April 2014) that Barry O'Farrell resigned after unintentionally misleading ICAC about the receipt of a bottle of expensive wine.  However, there weren't enough polls at the time to be sure.  In any case, the switch to Mike Baird saw the Coalition carrying on with 2PP results in the mid-50s.

This picture was maintained late last year with leads of , for instance, 55-45 in Newspoll (September-October) with 56-44 in Nov-Dec, 54-46 in Essential (Oct), 56-44 in Galaxy (Nov), 54-46 in Ipsos (Nov), 56-44 in Morgan SMS (Oct) and 55-45 from the same poll in November.  There were some notes of caution: Essential had a 52:48 in December and the November Ipsos was only 51:49 by respondent-allocated preferences (a bit sobering given Victorian and federal Ipsos polls have seemed to have a slight Coalition lead).  Overall though it seemed that the new Premier, Mike Baird, was going very solidly and that his overall position was a lead of at least 54:46, perhaps 55:45, by last-election preferences.  You could argue about how much preference distributions might change compared to the 2011 walloping where Labor polled very poorly, but it was clearly an election-winning position at the time.

A few things have changed since.  The first is that the tenure of Labor's initial choice for leader, John Robertson, came to a grinding halt when it was discovered that in 2011 he had written a letter supporting his constituent Man Haron Monis, a serial political nutter and all-round nasty piece of work who later became the gunman in the Lindt Cafe siege.  Robertson was replaced by Luke Foley, who proved to have his own skeletons in the form of two old drink-driving convictions.

Another is that the federal government has again become deeply unpopular, after a recovery of sorts last spring, and has now become embroiled in leadership tensions that have dominated the last few weeks.

These are the polls known to me since Foley took office as Opposition Leader:

A few notes about this table.  The 2PP is the last-election preferences published by the pollster.  In the case of the Ipsos poll, a respondent-allocated result was released of 53-47 to LNP.  In the case of the small Morgan phone poll, the method by which the 2PP was obtained is not stated.  There are a wide variety of methods used for estimating 2PPs under optional preferential voting and that probably accounts for some of the contradictory 2PPs above.

Taking account of sample size (broadly), recency, pollster reliability and the usual (but not in Queensland) problem of the Green vote being overstated by pollsters, I aggregate these polls at 53.7 to Coalition by 2011 preferences, off primaries of 43.7 LNP, 35.7 Labor, 10.1 Green, 10.4 Other.

That sounds like a strong position with four weeks to go and given that it's not that common for results to differ from an aggregate taken one month out by more than a few points.  However ...

Dangers To The Coalition's Lead

The first problem is that we now know from Queensland that most of this lead might not be real.  In Queensland, the gain rate to Labor off all minor party preferences changed from .05 votes per vote in 2012 to .32 votes per vote in 2015, causing the LNP to under-achieve compared to what would be expected from the primaries and 2012 preferences by a massive 2.7 points.  Contrary to my expectation that changes in preference behaviour should matter less in OPV because of the percentage of preferences that exhaust, they can actually matter more.  One reason is that minor party voters who dislike one of the two major parties strongly are locked into preferencing the other if preferencing is compulsory, but may shift between preferencing the opposing party and exhausting their vote (when disillusioned) under OPV.  While just voting 1 seems senseless in the context of a single election, in the long term sometimes exhausting your vote can be a tactic to force your preferred major party to lift its game.  Both in Queensland and NSW in 2011-2, many Green voters may well have exhausted their preference in disgust with the sorty state of Labor in both states.

Potentially, a similar shift in preferencing behaviour in NSW (from Labor's feeble gain rate of .03 votes/vote in 2011) would have about the same 2PP consequences.  The minor party vote is apparently about the same, and if the pollsters are to be believed the Green share of the minor party vote will increase by a similar amount as it did in Queensland.  (I'm a little sceptical on the latter point.)  If Queensland is repeated, then the Coalition's 2PP vote of 54ish and apparently slightly falling is potentially more like 51, at which point things get slightly interesting.

That applies especially if we consider the 2PP might fall further should federal leadership tensions damage the Coalition campaign.

I do, however, have doubts that the preferencing shift in NSW will be as strong.  Mike Baird isn't Campbell Newman; his government may be disliked by left-wingers, but doesn't bring out the same level of loathing reserved for the Newmans and Abbotts of this world.  It is unclear whether a "put the Coalition last" campaign will have the same appeal as "put the LNP last" did in Queensland.  And whereas Queensland Labor was seen as a small Opposition bravely recovering against almost insurmountable odds (the haplessness of the later Bligh days now forgotten), the NSW ALP may be more scarred by the damage done by Obeid, Tripodi, Macdonald et al.

A recent article at The Tally Room shows that shifts in preferencing through 2003, 2007 and 2011 in NSW were relatively minor.  For instance, a return to 2003 preference flows (.1 votes gained per minor party vote) would make about 0.8 points 2PP difference.  However, a graph posted here in comments by reader Joel shortly after the Queensland result (see also associated comments on Reddit) shows that we cannot even rely on a return to the days of successful Labor governments as a preferencing model, and that Queensland had a similar history of preferencing stability until a month ago.  In the best prior Queensland preferencing result for Labor, 2009, Labor had still gained "only" .14 votes per minor party primary.  The 2015 Queensland preferencing pattern was not just a return to normal following Labor's recovery from the depths; it was way off the previous scale.

The other lurking issue is Mike Baird's current popularity.  A good thing for the Coalition?  Yes, in isolation, but we should bear in mind what might be called the Brent Paradox: if a leader is popular, then it is more likely they will become less popular, which may cause their party's ratings to fall. Which brings us to:

It's A Baird, It's A Plane ...

Mike Baird is seriously popular.  His latest Newspoll netsat is +33 (59-26), Morgan's phone poll had him at +22.5 (48.5-26), and Ipsos gave him +42 (60-18).  His Preferred/Better Premier leads are large too (Newspoll 55-25, Morgan phone 49.5-22, Ipsos 54-24, Galaxy 46-22).  (Having a fresh Opposition Leader who is not too well recognised helps there).

But this was also true (to just not quite the same degree) of the last Liberal Premier to go to an election in NSW, John Fahey.  In January and February of 1995 Fahey had a +25 netsat, an 48% party Newspoll primary and a 25-point lead over Bob Carr as Better Premier.  By two weeks out from the election Fahey's netsat had dropped to +9, though the primary vote was still holding up well at that stage.  It didn't hold til election day though: Fahey's government suffered a 3% swing in the final weeks and was defeated.  Fahey had been governing in minority and did share with Baird that he had taken over from a Premier forced to stand down, but Fahey did not even have to contend with having the same party in power federally.

What is odd about Baird's popularity is that he is a Liberal.  Looking at Newspoll ratings since 1985, it is generally Labor premiers (eg Bracks, Goss, Beattie, Bannon; there are several others) who can still poll netsats over +30 after over six months in the job.  It will be interesting to see how Baird's ratings stand up to the test of a campaign.

Luke Foley is polling reasonable personal ratings, but he is so new to the job of Opposition Leader that his ratings are largely irrelevant.  Given the recent pattern that elections are there to be lost by governments (and that if a government deserves to lose the voters may give almost anyone a go) it doesn't seem to matter that his Newspoll netsat is +6, Morgan zero, Ipsos +9 (etc).

Some might argue that having been through a leadership change so recently makes Labor uncompetitive. It doesn't.  Quite aside from some apparent relief that John Robertson has been removed, the track record is that a state Opposition can be a shambles and yet win by default.  This happened in WA in 2008 when Alan Carpenter's government seemed to be cruising and fell over (in part because of a headstrong calling of an early election) although the Liberals in that state had been through four leaders in one term and had finally recycled a "failed" leader from the election before.

Seat Treatment

As noted above I haven't had time to roll out the snazzy seat model (dented by the preference issue in Queensland after a near-perfect performance in Victoria) just yet.  The election starts with 69 notionally Coalition seats, 20 notionally Labor and 4 crossbench (one of them the new seat of Newtown which is notionally Green).  The Labor seats include two gained in by-elections, both of which will be easy retains if the Coalition's 2PP is below 55 or so.

Antony Green has treated the bizarre case of Miranda (where the ALP incumbent retired at the last election, recovered the seat at a by-election, and is now retiring again) as a Liberal seat based on its huge 2011 margin.  My analysis of disrupted seats at state by-elections agrees with this.

There are 14 seats on Coalition margins of 6.8% or less, and with polling pointing to a swing of at least 10% or so, unless a lot changes it's safe to treat that tranche as gone and think about a revised start line of 55 vs 34, with Labor needing to knock off at least another nine to put the Coalition out of majority government.

Next up are Coogee (8.3%) and Kiama (8.6%), which are both double sophomore seats, so add about 2 points to the swing required for those.  The interesting thing is that while in Queensland the target seats for Labor were often bolstered by double sophomore effect, in NSW this isn't the case.  There aren't that many target seats, and of the next eight:

* Seven Hills (8.8%) is actually mostly Nathan Rees' electorate, so the Coalition gets a smaller personal vote bonus for his retirement.

* Holsworthy (10.7%), Gosford (11.9%), Mulgoa (12.4%) and Parramatta (12.5%) were all seats where a Labor incumbent retired in 2011, so there is only a single sophomore effect advantage.

* The Entrance (11.8%) is good for not even that - the Labor incumbent retired and the Coalition incumbent has been ICACed.

* Port Stephens (14.7%) and Penrith (16.1%) are Coaliton-held for more than one electorate.

The next seat above these is on 17.1%.

Port Stephens is the seat at which the Coalition lose their majority all else being equal, and I don't think that making allowances for personal votes changes this a lot.  We can say "by the pendulum" that the swing required is 14.7%, but because of the sparseness of seats around that level in the pendulum, it's possible that it might really end up being a point more or less than that (at least).  Thus, the 2PP deck is probably a little in the Coalition's favour.  That is, assuming they don't drop any safer seats to indies who then back the ALP.  (I'll have a look for those in coming weeks.)

All Up

It's quite possible the Liberal Party will replace Tony Abbott by the time the week is out, greatly altering the impact of Canberra factors on NSW and allowing the Baird government to go to the polls with a new PM who should be enjoying an electoral honeymoon.  If Abbott is indeed rolled, we may see quite different state polling in coming weeks. [NB added 2 March: this looks less likely after an Ipsos poll result on the weekend was surprisingly competitive for the Coalition.]

Overall it is very hard for Labor to win this unless Canberra factors trash the Coalition's primary even more.  The current 2PP is enough to very likely withstand a Queensland-style change in preferences, the change in preferences probably won't be as large anyway, and the Canberra factor might be close to maxing out even if Abbott survives.  The Coalition won't be going to this one asking minor party voters to preference a party that was about to lose its leader's seat.

I do think it's possible for the Coalition to lose this one as well, however.  As well as the Canberra factor, any government that goes to an election proposing even the most modest of privatisations seems to leave itself open to a backlash.  I don't think Labor will win at this stage, but it's a more realistic chance than it might seem.  NSW Liberals who are nervous that the continuing presence of Abbott as PM might cause them to throw this one away too, have good reason to be.

I'll be back with an attempt at a seat model and projection, and also some Upper House modelling if time permits, around mid-March.

PS I was too busy writing this article to notice that in yesterday's debate, Mike Baird gave Labor significant oxygen by stating there is "no plan B" if his electricity network leasing plan to generate money for infrastructure is blocked by the Upper House.  It's the sort of line that launches a thousand attack ads, and should make for a bumpy campaign.

March 2: ReachTEL update:

A new ReachTEL taken on the 26th of February has a 2PP of 53:47, but it is off primaries (44.6 Coalition 35 Labor) that are actually slightly more positive for the Coalition than the 54:46 Newspoll.  As noted above there is a lot of variation in last-election 2PP calculation methods between pollsters covering NSW.

A question on why non-Coalition voters do not vote for the Coalition shows that very few cite the performance of Premier Baird as an objection.  This makes a useful comparison (although the options list is quite different) with a poll of the seat of Ashgrove in Queensland, in which nearly half the non-Newman-voting sample cited Newman's performance or "leadership" as their main objection.

The performance of the Federal government is cited as the main objection to voting for the NSW Coalition by nearly 30% of the sample, and this objection is stronger among Greens and Ind/Other voters than Labor voters.  Labor has a higher proportion of voters who vote ALP out of habit, and many such responses were listed as reasons for preferring Foley to Baird in the Morgan phone poll.

Bearing in mind that ReachTEL net personal ratings are a bit harsher than those for other pollsters (because the middle option Satisfactory can capture mild positive sentiment) Mike Baird's ReachTEL netsat of +20.5, with below 10% rating his performance Very Poor,  is excellent.  Luke Foley unsurprisingly struggles with name recognition (especially among female voters) and to the extent that voters claim to have an opinion they are likely to pick the "meh" option, a la Shorten.

The poll not surprisingly shows that non-Coalition voters say overwhelmingly that the federal government's performance has made them less likely to vote Coalition, and more interestingly that about 20% of Coalition voters are reserved in their voting intention because of that.  Overall of voters who say any factor makes them more or less likely to vote a certain way, some proportion aren't actually telling the truth, and many others may be only slightly more or less likely.  So it is difficult to use such questions to really get a handle on the impact of a given factor on voting.  I usually divide the difference by five to estimate a maximum impact of a given issue - which in this case still suggests federal drag could be worth four or five points.

The inclusion of the ReachTEL in my NSW aggregate increases my 2011-election estimated 2PP to 53.9 for the LNP. In practice based on Queensland, but assuming that the preference backlash in NSW will be weaker, I think that would more likely be something in the range 52 to 53.

Extra reading: Those looking for other signs that the Baird government isn't a shoo-in should check Antony Green's piece Why The Baird Government is Vulnerable.  It quite neatly complements mine in that while mine draws heavily on the precedent of the defeat of the Fahey government in 1995, Antony's also shows that the loss of majority by the Greiner government in 1991 justifies caution about calling this one done and dusted. Especially, there are serious risks even with a 2PP of (say) 51-52, that the distribution of the 2PP swing by seat will be uneven.  This especially applies if the swing back is a mirror of the 2011 pattern in which swings were weaker in already Coalition-held seats.

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