With three consecutive election wins under his belt including one that delivered him one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in Australian history, it would seem safe to assume that the Prime Minister is a reasonably effective election campaigner. But for political commentators being contrary goes with the territory, and the safer an assumption appears the more certain it is that a counter-argument will emerge. Peter Brent at Mumble has long been a Howard naysayer, citing the Government’s brush with death in 1998 and a victory in November 2001 that could be reckoned quite modest under the circumstances. The notion was given wider circulation today by Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review, who opened an article that featured prominently in today’s election wraparound thus:
John Howard’s utter dominance of federal politics for most of the past eight years has tended to overshadow something that will prove crucial to the outcome of the 2004 election: that he is a poor campaigner … (in 1996) Newspoll recorded the coalition’s primary vote falling from about 50 per cent in mid-January to 47 per cent on election day, March 2 … (in 1998) the government’s standing with voters deteriorated from a high of 44 per cent in mid-August to 39.5 per cent on election day on October 3. Even in 2001 in an election remembered for its focus on border security, the coalition’s primary vote fell from 50 per cent in late September to 43.1 per cent on polling day, November 10.
Tingle is being a little cute here. The 50 per cent result she chooses as her reference point for the 1996 election showed a spike in the Coalition vote for that fortnight, comparing with 47 per cent in the previous poll and 48 per cent subsequently. These results indicate that Howard maintained the status quo during the 1996 campaign, which would normally be considered a good effort from an Opposition Leader facing an entrenched and (normally) skilful incumbent. The poll chosen to represent the state of play going into the 1998 election was quirkier still, the quoted figure of 44 per cent comparing with 39 per cent from the previous fortnight and 40 per cent from the next. Following the logic of her 1996 comparison Tingle should have gone with the latter poll, that being the one taken immediately before the election announcement, but this would have required conceding that Howard held his ground during the campaign period. And if Tingle wanted to gauge the effect of a "focus on border security" in 2001 she could hardly have chosen a worse starting point than the poll taken immediately after September 11. It was inevitable that the Coalition vote would cool a little from this result, although the 43.1 per cent they ultimately recorded indeed represented a drop on their scores in Newspoll throughout the campaign – although it could just be that the maligned Roy Morgan was recording Coalition support more accurately.
The Government indeed has the fight of its life on its hands, but it may at least be said that any Labor partisans who are factoring pro-Labor bonuses into current polling based on Howard’s supposed campaigning incompetence are likely to be disappointed. Due to the inexperience of the Opposition Leader, for which the only modern precedent is John Hewson in 1993, and the proven capacity of governments to squeeze out one last term through election period scare campaigns, the Poll Bludger will continue to lean the other way and assume that the Coalition will claw back at least 2 per cent on two-party preferred over the next six weeks.
UPDATE (31/8/04): This post originally contained the outrageous claim that Howard’s 1996 majority was the biggest in Australia’s history. Thanks to Peter Brent at Mumble for alerting me to the fact that I had "taken the Howard truth serum" – it was in fact equal third.