Why the opinion polls were always wrong and how we should have spotted it

Election 2019: why the opinion polls were always wrong


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The polls were always wrong; the bigger question is what connects voter to politician in the topsy-turvy new politics.

The ANU physicist in the room knew well before election day that the polls were wrong. He was the level head at an inner north election party on Saturday, where the public servants and teachers shared the cry of the ABC presentation team: What has gone wrong?

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison on election night. Picture: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on election night. Picture: AAP

"I can't compute this, this is our Trump election," said one of the surprise drubbing for Labor against the run of the polls. But the physicist explains. "The last 20 polls have been closer [to each other] than the margin of error. To a physicist that says the polls have been massaged. It's called herding."

To explain, the loss of landlines has made polls less reliable, since it's harder to get hold of people, which makes samples less representative from the get-go. Which means polling companies have to "de-bias" the results. And they're not de-biasing well or accurately.

A typical poll sample with a margin of error of 1.5 per cent should mean the poll results bounce around by 1.5 per cent; and the more polls you do the more that should be the case. But the polls have in fact been within 0.25 per cent of each other, we're told, which means as pollsters try to fix their skewed mobile and internet responses, they use previous poll data to massage the results, and the mistakes feed on themselves.

"The evidence is clear; the scatter is much too small," the physicist says with "99.9 per cent confidence". The fact that the polls are all very consistent is telling us more about the polling companies than anything else.

That might explain "what went wrong" from the viewpoint of expectations. The bigger issue is what the result shows about the topsy-turvy Australian electorate. Tony Abbott zeroed in on it when he conceded defeat. When climate change is a moral issue the Liberals lose; when climate change is an economic issue the Liberals romp in. The dissonance in Abbott's speech is that he himself was done over by climate change as a "moral" issue. In the way of election night speeches, where you see more honesty and frank-talking than in the entire three years before or after, Abbott was admitting that the Liberals were on the wrong side of the climate debate morally and ethically. If you vote ethically on this issue, you vote left. If you vote with your job or business top of mind you vote conservative. In well-off Warringah, they voted what Abbott would describe as morally, and they dumped him.

On the ABC panel Arthur Sinodinos, the former Howard chief of staff now Liberal senator, while pointing out that farmers are ahead of the politicians on climate change, echoed and widened Abbott's idea. The well-off seats, he pointed out, have the luxury to think about things other than paying the bills so they vote Labor; the working class seats vote conservative. The Liberals, despite their big-end-of-town policies, are no longer the choice of the rich; Labor, the despite its "living wage" for the workers, is no longer the choice of the worker.

The irony is not only that the voters are ignoring the policies of the major parties in these upside-down voting patterns, but the conservative politicians themselves represent precisely what the voters resent - they are the rich, the city-dwellers, the expensive home owners in the growing divide between the rich and the bulk of workers.

Abbott is a creature of the top-flight north shore seat of Warringah; and has more in common with the well-off big-city voters who dumped him than with the people in the working seats who re-elected his party (setting aside the impact of the self-funded retiree vote). If Sinodinos is right and the working seats are turning from Labor to the Liberal, the politicians themselves are on a different page.

Abbott and Sinodonis might be right but what is the import of their words? The Liberals' great moralist doesn't do the moral thing. The party of the rich dupes the poor.

All this confusion about traditional voting patterns was evident when The Canberra Times spoke to first-time voters. They, wackily, were tossing up between Liberal and the Greens, or Liberal and Labor, or had less clue even that that. At the inner north party, one person wondered who were the swinging voters? "I've voted the same thing all my life." The sprouting of independents doesn't seem to have helped. Even this gathering agreed that it had been hard to put Zed last. So many nut jobs on the ballot paper, they said, that Zed made it only about halfway down their preferences.

But now Zali Steggall is on the tele, making a charming, mildly incoherent acceptance speech, aired interminably. She's wearing "an Anna Thomas top" from a shop in Mosman, notes someone. How can you possibly tell? The fashion-spotter has been there. Google Anna Thomas and you don't find prices, but this: A search for "the most beautiful cloth has allowed Anna an opportunity to develop ... personal relationships with the Italian textile mills." Lovely.

The booze tonight is from Blackhearts and Sparrows in Lonsdale Street (Braddon, Brunswick, North Fitzroy, Prahran), so chichi that it's not easy to find a label with a name of the maker let alone the grape, and where you can discuss an impressive range of variously funky pet nat options suitable for a celebration. At Blackhearts, we're told three-quarters of the booze sold tonight is for election parties, where Antony Green bingo is apparently a thing, since everyone, of course, watches the ABC. A suggestion during our evening that perhaps we could switch to Nine for a bit was simply ignored.

Instead, we're watching gloomy faces of the ABC commentators who mirror the mood in the room. "They're all Labor!" someone says of the panel.

And then, "Why would you have an affair with him? I mean, like, honestly," as the blustering Barnaby buffoons his way through a non-explanation of the result.

Until at 9.10pm the uber-professional Leigh Sales suddenly seems to realise something needs to change, pointing out that there's been a lot of talk about the "terrible result for Labor", which she justifies as an artefact of the surprise factor given the polls. So she starts asking people more upbeat questions like, what went right for the Coalition?

Thank you Leigh Sales; about time.

But the champagne for Dutton's demise stays corked tonight and at 9.40pm as he speaks, the party winds down. The polls are crumpled in the corner, diminished and stripped of respect after a night out that went wrong. Labor is shellshocked with no clue what to do next; the Liberals are at peak cognitive dissonance, and the collective mind turns to the office of the public servants on Monday morning. The aid budget could crash and burn. The mood will be terrible. We have to work with these drongos, the party says as it watches Dutton and team, elected in Queensland and the bush, celebrate their return to Canberra.

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