Election Polling: A ReachTel Robocall

This is what a ReachTEL opinion poll robocall sounds like.

The message was received by my mobile phone at 6.01pm tonight.

The first question asked who I would vote for if an election were to be held today. The options were:

  1. Labor Party
  2. Liberal Party
  3. The Greens
  4. The Nick Xenophon Team
  5. Any other minor party or independent candidate
  6. Unsure

Because no answer was provided, the message cuts out.

Who Will Win The 2013 Federal Election?

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. [Read more…]