Is it even possible to predict an election result?
Well… in my opinion most elections are quite predictable. I’ve voted in 15 federal elections and I’d say 11 of them were easy to predict. I’ve voted in 11 state elections and only 2 of them could be said to have produced surprise results.
The trouble is, some elections are not easy to predict but it’s only after the event that we know which ones. That’s why politics is such good fun.
So what should I look for?
Let’s look at the historical situation. To start with, governments usually get re-elected. Of the past 25 federal elections since 1949, the incumbent government has been returned in 19 of them.
Never let anyone tell you it’s easy to remove a government, even an ageing government. They all run out of puff eventually but it isn’t always predictable when this will be.
What about voting percentages? How do I interpret them?
You have to remember that winning political parties usually get around 50-54% of the two-party-preferred vote. The losing party may be in opposition but around half the country still voted for them.
For example, Kevin Rudd won 52.7% of the vote in 2007. John Howard got 52.74% in 2004 and 50.95% in 2001.
Even when Howard won a massive majority in 1996, the coalition was only on 53.63%. That was similiar to the 53.2% that Hawke got when he defeated Fraser in 1983. When Whitlam won office in 1972, the figure is estimated to have been 52.7%.
What this means is that Labor and the Coalition are fairly evenly divided. You’ll notice I’m using the two-party-preferred figures because that’s the only way you can compare election results. Remember it’s compulsory for voters to allocate preferences so in the end everyone has to choose between Labor and the Coalition.
What kind of swing can I expect to see this year?
Let’s look at recent elections. In 1996, the Coalition got a swing of 5.00% and demolished the Keating Labor government. In 1998, the Howard government had a swing against it of 4.1% and nearly lost.
In 2001, the Coalition got a swing of 2.01% towards it and increased Howard’s majority. In 2004, they got another 1.79% and increased their majority further.
When Rudd defeated Howard in 2007, the ALP got a swing of 5.44%. Under Gillard, the ALP fell 2.58% and barely survived with 50.12% of the two-party vote.
Electoral history tells us that the swing this year will be similar to one of these figures. If it’s 4 or 5 per cent to one side or the other, they will win easily.
So 4% or 5% is a big swing?
Yes. A swing of that size is more than enough to shift a lot of seats and defeat a government.
One of the biggest swings ever was 7.40% against the ALP in 1975. This reduced the ALP to 36 seats in a 127-seat House. Malcolm Fraser had the biggest majority any party has ever had in the House of Representatives. He got 55.70% of the two-party vote.
Back in 1943, John Curtin’s Labor government demolished the conservatives with a swing of 7.90%. The ALP’s two-party vote is estimated to have been 58.20%. I think this is the biggest ever.
The only swings bigger than this were the anti-Labor swings in state elections in New South Wales in 2011 and Queensland in 2012. In NSW the swing was 16.48% and in Queensland it was 13.7%. As we know, the ALP was slaughtered in both elections. Its primary vote (first preferences) dropped to around 25% in both states.
Is it possible that there could be a swing like that against the Gillard government this year?
It’s theoretically possible but highly unlikely. There are some geographical and demographic factors that help explain what happened in Queensland and NSW but both states use optional preferential voting in their elections and that accentuated the swing.
In the federal election full preferential voting is compulsory. Even if a Labor or Coalition voter defects to a minor party or independent, they are obliged to ultimately give a preference to one of the major parties.
It is possible that the ALP vote could fall into the 20% range. Opinion polls have put the ALP at that level at various points over the past two years. But few people think that is likely on election day.
In 2013, a 7% swing would be enormous. 4-5% will get either side there easily. 2-3% will get them a workable majority. Even 1% would do it for either side.
Are you saying that it’s always close and either side can win?
Of course either side can win. This is a parliamentary system with compulsory voting and a compulsory preferential system. That tends to eliminate wildly erratic results. Only a fool would ever say that one party can’t win.
It’s a two-horse race that either can win. The electoral climate can shift, the economy matters, leadership counts, and events – national and international – can transform the political calculation.
But that doesn’t mean the result will be close. I’m just saying the vote is usually closer than many people think it is but the number of seats in parliament is a different thing.
So who really decides elections?
You have to remember that at least 60% of the voters will vote exactly the same way they have done all their lives. The figure is probably somewhere between 60-80%.
Just about everyone I know personally is a committed Labor, Coalition or Green voter. They’ll never switch sides. I’m struggling to think of people I know who are swinging voters. Do your own survey of family and friends and remind yourself that daily politics and election campaigns are unlikely to have any effect on their voting intention.
We know that most of the seats in the House won’t change hands. Have a look at this table to see what I mean. Nearly half of the seats in the House haven’t changed hands in the past 10 elections. Many more only change occasionally. Notwithstanding boundary changes, the picture is one of consistency in suburbs, towns and regions all over the country.
Often it’s the same group of seats which switch sides and change governments from time to time. In those seats it’s around 5-10% of voters who make the difference.
In the 2010 election, there were 12.4 million formal votes cast. The results tell us that around 320,000 people changed their votes from 2007. It’s not a precise figure because new voters have enrolled, others have died, and we don’t know how many people switched in opposite directions, but commonsense tells us the number of people who changed their vote is a very small minority. The election campaign is directed at finding these people and influencing them.
That’s why I urge caution in thinking that the cavalcade of media frenzies about political issues has any effect. The people who think the election will be decided by the misogyny debate are wrong. The people who think the carbon tax will decide the election are wrong. James Ashby won’t swing a single vote. Nor will Peter Slipper.
It’s easy, especially these days, to be fooled by all the media noise, the online shouting and the general political posturing into thinking that these issues resonate with voters. What people really mean is they think or hope that a small number of voters will be swayed by them.
The truth is much of the nonsense that passes for political news and commentary washes unnoticed over voters. You have to be careful not to be sucked in by all the outrage, anger and self-righteousness.
Most voters go about their business without getting caught up in all the hyperbole. The economy, security and stability matter more to them. They yearn for predictability.
Often the voters who decide elections are the least informed and the least interested. They haven’t been sitting on Twitter talking about Peta Credlin over this past weekend.
Okay, I get that. But surely we can still make a prediction about the election. Isn’t everybody saying that Gillard is stuffed?
Yes, most people are. The opinion polls say the government is behind and has been for nearly two years.
The government is already in a minority. It only holds 72 seats out of 150 in the House of Representatives. Technically, it only holds 71 because Craig Thomson sits on the crossbenches. It has to win extra seats just to stay in office. It can’t afford to lose a single seat.
It has an uphill battle. It is most likely to lose.
Isn’t the Opposition in the same position?
Yes, it’s also in a minority. It can’t afford to lose any seats.
But it’s the government that is being judged in the election. Most of the time, voters cast a judgment on the government because they’re the ones doing things. They were put there to govern and do things.
The old saying that “governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them” is fairly persuasive. As long as the opposition isn’t crazy or threatening, voters will throw an unpopular government out and elect the opposition instead.
But isn’t the Coalition a little bit crazy? Isn’t Abbott unpopular? Doesn’t he make voters uneasy?
That’s certainly the view the government is encouraging. Shall we talk about it tomorrow?
- Two-Party-Preferred Statistics Since 1949
- Results in House of Representatives Seats 1984-2010
- Federal Election Outcomes Since 1901