Last week I took a big picture look at how the main public pollsters performed in their immediate pre-election polling. Today I offer a necessarily incomplete account of the only partly knowable subject of internal party polling – specifically that of the Liberal Party, and how it played out against the backdrop of bitter conflict over its strategy of the campaign of pursuing culturally conservative constituencies at a time when those under threat from the teal independents needed every socially liberal vote they could get.
Much of this story relates to the controversy surrounding Warringah candidate Katherine Deves, which Scott Morrison appeared to consider the key to unlocking enough Labor-held seats in the outer suburbs and regions to balance defeats in inner metropolitan seats, at least to the extent of allowing him to hold on to power in a minority government. The notion that this strategy might have been hitting its mark was not the exclusive preserve of Liberal Party optimists. Shortly after the controversy first emerged early in the campaign, Phillip Coorey of the Financial Review wrote that “in the suburbs, the regions and the religious communities, the government – and Labor – believes the Deves issue is going gangbusters in Scott Morrison’s favour, messy as it may be”. A week later, Chris Uhlmann cited a Labor strategist in the Age/Herald who believed the issue was playing “90/10 in Deves’ favour” in the suburbs and the regions. Cameron Milner, a former Queensland Labor state secretary now all too comfortable in a new perch on The Australian’s op-ed page, described the Liberals’ exploitation of the controversy as “brilliant foghorn politics” that would yield a bumper crop of Hanson and Palmer preferences.
When Deves recanted her initial apology for her comments a fortnight out from the election, Niki Savva in the Age/Herald cited a Liberal source saying this had been “set up deliberately to resuscitate the issue”. Complicating the notion of a divide between what Uhlmann called “the inner-city bubble” and mainstream opinion further afield, Lanai Scarr of The West Australian reported that some were “even tipping Deves could pull off her own ‘miracle’ win and insulate other conservative electorates nationally in the process”, potentially saving the Liberals in such difficult contests as the Perth seat of Swan.
Needless to say, none of this looks terribly prescient now that the election’s unknowns are known. The possibility that the Liberals were acting on faulty intelligence is intriguingly raised by a report from Peter van Onselen on Ten News four days out from the election, which related that Liberal polling had Katherine Deves trailing Zali Steggall by only 53-47 – quite a lot closer than Steggall’s eventual winning margin of 61-39. Lest it be thought that this was some kind of Liberal Party psyop, it formed part of a batch of polling that was otherwise disastrous for the Liberals, with two-party preferred scores inclusive of an uncommitted component showing them trailing 50-43 in Bennelong and 50-41 in Parramatta (worse than their actual losing margins) and 49-48 in Reid (better), with particularly large deficits among women.
This happened to be the second batch of Liberal seat polling that van Onselen had been able to report late in the campaign, the first of which emerged as a bone of contention post-election in the party’s deepening culture war over the teal independent seats and whether they should be cut loose in favour of a more populist approach that took its cues from Donald Trump. This had the Liberal primary vote at 43% in Kooyong, 37% in Goldstein and 44% in Higgins, which bore up quite well against respective final results of 42.7%, 40.4% and 40.7%. Shortly after the election, Sharri Markson of The Australian recorded the following reaction to the leak inside the Liberal camp:
Senior Liberal figures scratched their heads, wondering where it had originated. The precise numbers did not reflect what was emanating from the party’s official poster, Crosby Textor. An internal probe discovered that (Senator Andrew) Bragg had submitted expenses to the NSW Liberal division of about $35,000 to $40,000 to conduct his own alternative polling in many NSW seats. There is no suggestion that Bragg leaked the polling to van Onselen, which he denies. It was not in his interest to depress the prospects of candidates he was fighting hard to help win. It’s not even clear whether the polling Bragg commissioned was the same polling broadcast on Ten. However, Morrison’s team believed it was.
Bragg had circulated the polling he commissioned to many Liberals – an action one source described as “sloppy” – and the suggestion is a recipient subsequently leaked it to the media. Questioned about the research for this article, Bragg admits he commissioned alternate polling and is scathing about the way Liberal headquarters and Crosby Textor treat Liberal candidates, who he says are kept in the dark about how they are faring.
“The Liberal Party and Crosby Textor treat the candidates like absolute shit and don’t give them the information they need,” Bragg says. “The candidates, who are often members of parliament, all they are given is a phone briefing and if they’re lucky they might get a piece of paper. Crosby Textor omit key things like the favourability of the leader because they’re worried that will leak to the media. If you know the party leader is massively unpopular you’ll differentiate so you can hang onto the seat. But if you’re not told that how are you supposed to know? It’s conflicts galore.”
Echoes of Bragg’s criticism were to be heard outside the tent from Kos Samaras, who as one of the principals of the Redbridge Group had provided polling and strategic advice to Climate 200 (with which, as per the disclosure notice at the bottom of this site’s sidebar, I was involved myself):
Why did the teals win? Many reasons. But at the centre of the campaign was an absolute commitment to the data. There were no games with what the internal polling said. There were no favourites shown, whereby resources are sent into a seat, even though the polling painted a different picture … (The Liberals) poured resouces into one seat, Kooyong, at the expense of others, even though their data was indeed showing a grim picture. That picture of course was never told, as the constant backgrounding into the media was akin to a story-telling session, skunk drunk, at a pub. The Liberal decision-making was riddled with bias and subjectivity, fuelled by an internal factional structure that made it impossible for data to be utilised correctly.
If early indications are anything to go by, the tension between the Liberal Party’s determination to tack to the right on cultural issues and electoral imperatives to win the favour of more liberally minded voters could be set to play out again at the Victorian state election in November. Stay tuned.