Of swings and misses: episode three

From my paywalled article in Crikey yesterday:

In the wake of its most unambiguous failure at a federal election since at least 1980, Australia’s polling industry is licking its wounds.

The Nine/Fairfax papers have announced the Ipsos poll series will be put on ice, and those pollsters who do return to the field shortly will face catcalls whether they persist in recording a Labor lead we now know doesn’t exist, or only now start detecting a Coalition lead that eluded them through the entirety of the past parliamentary term.

Despite it all though, the pollsters’ performance hasn’t been without its defenders.

Spoiler alert: the latter refers to David Briggs and Nate Silver. But Peter Brent can now be added to the list, up to a point, following a review of the issues raised by the polling failure in Inside Story. Specifically, Brent observes that the primary vote miss was less severe than the two-party preferred; that the difference arose from a stronger-than-anticipated flow of minor party and independent preferences to the Coalition; that herding was less apparent on the primary vote (most markedly in the case of Ipsos’s reading of the balance of support between Labor and the Greens); and that the result was, if nothing else, no worse than the Victorian state election.

Another point noted is the strange consistency with which polls have pointed to extravagant gains for Labor in Queensland before and during election campaigns, only for them to fall away at the end. On this occasion, the falling away as recorded by pollsters wasn’t remotely on the scale needed to predict the result, with statewide polling published towards the end of the campaign landing at least 7% shy of what looks like being the Coalition two-party vote in the state.

The question of geographic variability in the pollster failure seemed worth exploring, so I have put together a table of state and electorate level polling published in the last fortnight or so of the campaign, available below the fold at the bottom of the post. Almost all of this polling was conducted by YouGov Galaxy, whether under its own name or as Newspoll. The only exception was a set of state-level two-party preferred totals from Ipsos, published at the tail end of the campaign by the Age-Herald (which performed rather poorly).

Below all this is a list of “average bias” figures, consisting of straight averages of the observed errors, be they positive or negative, rather than the absolute errors. This means combinations of positive and negative results will have the fact of cancelling out — although there were actually very few of those, as the errors tended to be consistently in the one direction. The national and state-level two-party results are estimates provided to me by Nine’s election systems consultant David Quin. With no Coalition-versus-Labor figures available from 15 electorates, this inevitably involves a fair bit of guess work.

A few points should be observed. Given that poll trends pointed to a clear long-term trend to the Coalition, pollsters may be excused a certain amount of Labor bias when evaluating polling that was in many cases conducted over a week before the election. This is particularly true of the Newspoll state aggregates, which cover the full length of the campaign.

Another issue with the Newspoll state aggregates is that One Nation was a response option for all respondents in the early part of the campaign, despite their contesting only 59 out of 151 seats. Their vote here accordingly comes in too high, and as Peter Brent notes, at least part of their failure could be explained by stranded One Nation supporters breaking in unexpectedly large quantities to the Coalition, rather than other minor party targets of opportunity like Clive Palmer.

In seat polling though, where the issue did not arise, the polls were remarkable in having understated support for One Nation, and overstated it for the United Australia Party. This was one face of a two-sided polling failure in Queensland, of which the other was a serious imbalance towards Labor in support recorded for the major parties. While Queensland has caught most of the attention on this score, the polls were just as far out in measuring the primary votes of the major parties in Western Australia. Things were less bad in Victoria, but Coalition support was still significantly underestimated.

The only bright spots in the picture are New South Wales and South Australia, where Newspoll just about nailed the Coalition, Labor and Greens primary votes, and got the big things right in four seat polls. While Labor’s strength was overstated in Macquarie, it does now appear Labor will pull through there – for more on that front, stay tuned to the late counting thread.

Continue reading “Of swings and misses: episode three”

Election plus 11 days

Late counting, a disputed result, new research into voter attitudes, Senate vacancies, and the looming party members’ vote for the state Labor leadership in New South Wales.

Sundry updates and developments:

• As noted in the regularly updated late counting post, Labor has taken a 67 vote lead in Macquarie, after trailing 39 at the close of counting yesterday. However, there is no guarantee that this represents an ongoing trend to Labor, since most of the gain came from the counting of absents, which would now be just about done. Most of the outstanding votes are out-of-division pre-polls, which could go either way. The result will determine whether the Coalition governs with 77 or 78 seats out of 151, while Labor will have either 67 or 68.

• Labor is reportedly preparing to challenge the result in Chisholm under the “misleading or deceptive publications” provision of the Electoral Act, a much ploughed but largely unproductive tillage for litigants over the years. The Victorian authorities have been rather activist in upholding “misleading or deceptive publications” complaints, but this is in the lower stakes context of challenges to the registration of how-to-vote cards, rather than to the result of an election. At issue on this occasion is Liberal Party material circulated on Chinese language social media service WeChat, which instructed readers to fill out the ballot paper in the manner recommended “to avoid an informal vote”. I await for a court to find otherwise, but this strikes me as pretty thin gruel. The Chinese community is surely aware that Australian elections presume to present voters with a choice, so the words can only be understood as an address to those who have decided to vote Liberal. Labor also have a beef with Liberal material that looked like Australian Electoral Commission material, in Chisholm and elsewhere.

• Political science heavyweights Simon Jackman and Shaun Ratcliff of the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre has breakdowns from a big sample campaign survey in The Guardian, noting that only survey data can circumvent the ecological fallacy, a matter raised in my previous post. The survey was derived from 10,316 respondents from a YouGov online panel, and conducted from April 18 to May 12. The results suggest the Coalition won through their dominance of the high income cohort (taken here to mean an annual household income of over $208,000), particularly among the self-employed, for which their primary vote is recorded as approaching 80%. Among business and trust owners on incomes of over $200,000, the Coalition outpolled Labor 60% to 10%, with the Greens on next to nothing. However, for those in the high income bracket who didn’t own business or trusts, the Coalition was in the low forties, Labor the high thirties, and the Greens the low teens. While Ratcliff in The Guardian seeks to rebut the notion that “battlers” decided the election for the Coalition, the big picture impression for low-income earners is that Labor were less than overwhelmingly dominant.

• As reported in the Financial Review on Friday, post-election polling for JWS Research found Coalition voters tended to rate tax and economic management as the most important campaign issue, against climate change, health and education for Labor voters. Perhaps more interestingly, it found Coalition voters more than twice as likely to nominate “free-to-air” television as “ABC, SBS television” as their favoured election news source, whereas Labor voters plumped for both fairly evenly. Coalition voters were also significantly more likely to identify “major newspapers (print/online)”.

• Two impending resignations from Liberal Senators create openings for losing election candidates. The Financial Review reports Mitch Fifield’s Victorian vacancy looks set to be of interest not only to Sarah Henderson, outgoing Corangamite MP and presumed front-runner, but also to Indi candidate Steve Martin, Macnamara candidate Kate Ashmor and former state MP Inga Peulich.

• In New South Wales, Arthur Sinodinos’s Senate seat will fall vacant later this year, when he takes up the position of ambassador to the United States. The most widely invoked interested party to succeed him has been Jim Molan, who is publicly holding out hope that below-the-line votes will elect him to the third Coalition seat off fourth position on the ballot paper, although this is assuredly not going to happen. As canvassed in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review, other possible starters include Warren Mundine, freshly unsuccessful in his lower house bid for Gilmore; James Brown, chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW, state RSL president and the husband of Daisy Turnbull Brown, daughter of the former Prime Minister; Michael Hughes, state party treasurer and the brother of Lucy Turnbull; Kent Johns, the state party vice-president who appeared set to depose Craig Kelly for preselection in Hughes, but was prevailed on not to proceed; Richard Sheilds, chief lobbyist at the Insurance Council of Australia; Mary-Lou Jarvis, Woollahra councillor and unsuccessful preselection contender in Wentworth; and Michael Feneley, heart surgeon and twice-unsuccessful candidate for Kingsford Smith.

• Federal Labor may have evaded a party membership ballot through Anthony Albanese’s sole nomination, but a ballot is pending for the party’s new state leader in New South Wales, which will pit Kogarah MP Chris Minns against Strathfield MP Jodi McKay. The members’ ballot will be conducted over the next month, the parliamentary party will hold its vote on June 29, and the result will be announced the following day. Members’ ballots in leadership contests are now provided for federally and in most states (as best as I can tell, South Australia is an exception), but this is only the second time one has actually been conducted after the Shorten-Albanese bout that followed the 2013 election. As the Albanese experience demonstrates, the ballots can be circumvented if a candidate emerges unopposed, and the New South Wales branch, for one, has an exception if the vacancy arises six months before an election. Such was the case when Michael Daley succeeded Luke Foley in November, when he won a party room vote ahead of Chris Minns by 33 votes to 12.

UK (and other countries) European Union election results

Conservatives and Labour both smashed in the UK’s European Union elections; Theresa May to resign on June 7. Guest post by Adrian Beaumont.

Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian’s work on electoral matters for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.

At the UK’s European Union elections held on May 23, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party won 29 of the 73 seats, the Liberal Democrats 16 seats (up 15 since the 2014 EU elections), Labour ten (down ten), the Greens seven (up four) and the Conservatives just four seats (down 15).  Scottish and Welsh nationalists won four seats (up one).  The UK Independence Party (UKIP) lost its 24 seats.

Vote shares were 31.6% Brexit party, 20.3% Lib Dems (up 13.4%), 14.1% Labour (down 11.3%), 12.1% Greens (up 4.2%), 9.1% Conservatives (down 14.9%), 4.6% for Scottish and Welsh nationalists (up 1.4%), 3.4% Change UK – the pro-Remain party formed from Labour and Conservative splitter MPs, and 3.3% UKIP (down 24.2%).

Counting Brexit party and UKIP as hard Brexit parties and the Lib Dems, Greens, nationalists and Change UK as Remain parties, pro-Remain parties won a total 40.4% and hard Brexit 34.9%.  The Conservatives and Labour, who were punished for their ambiguous positions on Brexit, won a combined 23.2%.

On May 24 – the day after the UK’s EU elections – Theresa May announced she would resign as Conservative leader on June 7.  She will not resign as PM until a new leader has been elected.  Nominations for leader close in the week beginning June 10, and Conservative MPs will winnow the field down to two candidates by the end of June.  The final two go to the hard Brexit-supporting Conservative membership, with the result due by mid-July.

There are a total of 313 Conservative MPs.  To be mathematically assured of making the final two, a candidate needs 105 votes – just over one-third.  On March 27, 157 Conservative MPs supported an amendment that would have forced a no-deal Brexit, so it seems virtually certain that a hard Brexiteer will be one of the final two.  If the membership vote is between a hard Brexiteer and a more moderate candidate, it is very likely that the hard Brexiteer will win.

The EU election results are likely to push Labour into a more pro-Remain position, while the Conservatives, under a new leader, become a hard Brexit party.  Theresa May preferred a long Brexit extension (to October 31) to a no-deal Brexit; parliament did not force her to accept the extension.  With a hard Brexiteer as PM, parliament will need to do something drastic to avoid a no-deal Brexit, such as a no-confidence vote or revocation of Brexit.  Parliament has shown no inclination for something like this.

Greens and Liberals perform well in overall EU results

According to Europe Elects, the centre-right European faction won 165 of the 751 EU parliament seats (down 56 from 2014), the centre-left won 141 (down 50), Liberals 115 (up 48), the far-right (including Brexit party) 103 (up 18), the Greens 75 (up 25), national conservatives 57 (down 13) and the far-left 42 (down 10).  The Romanian centre-left party (eight seats) and the Hungarian centre-right party (13 seats) are not being counted with their factions as they could be booted.  Hungary’s Fidesz under Viktor Orbán is a far-right party, not a centre-right party.

It takes 376 seats to win a majority in the European parliament.  The left parties plus the Liberals, including the Romanian centre left, add to 381 seats.  The respectable right parties plus the Liberals add to 337 seats.  If the Liberals were to join a right coalition, it would need to include far-right parties that the Liberals vehemently oppose.  So I think the left has won the 2019 European parliamentary elections.


Ground zero in the swing against Labor: areas rich in religious, low-income workers in the construction, manufacturing and retail industries, preferably in Queensland or Tasmania.

Ben Phillips of the Australian National University has been hawking research showing the demographic indicators that associated most clearly with the federal election swing, with the clearest patterns relating to Christianity, which correlated with a swing against Labor, and education and income, which went the other way. Evidently the Australia Institute has done something similar, with findings reported by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In considering research of this kind, one must acknowledge the perils of the ecological fallacy, whereby inferences about the behaviour of individuals are inappropriately drawn from aggregate-level data. My favourite illustration of this point relates to American politics, wherein the Republicans’ strongest states are those of the dirt-poor deep south, whereas wealthier voters favour the more conservative party in the United States as surely as they do here. As such, it should be recognised that Christian areas swinging to the Coalition need not signify that Christian voters did.

Nonetheless, the relationship between swings and the demographic features of the areas in which they did or didn’t happen is interesting in and of itself, and really all we have to go on until the Australian National University eventually publishes its Australian Election Study survey, particularly in the absence of intensive and high-quality exit polling that is conducted in the United States.

My own number crunching along these lines has involved collecting demographic measures of the areas in which each polling booth is located, and using multiple regression analysis to determine how well they predicted the primary vote swing to or against Labor. The results were as interesting for what didn’t prove predictive as for what did. In particular, an electorate’s age profile appeared to have little impact on its swing – or at least, none that couldn’t be better explained by other variables that might themselves correlate with age. This theme was picked up on in the article linked to above by Ross Gittins, which argues against the widely held notion that franking credits was the main culprit behind Labor’s poor show.

After a bit of trial and error, and whittling it down to variables that didn’t appear to be separately measuring identical effects, the most instructive variables proved to be income, home ownership, education and industry of employment, with a few ethnicity measures registering as worth-including-but-only-just.

Continue reading “Supercalifragilecologicallyfallacious”

Photo finishes: the Senate

Electoral reform and an unexpectedly strong election result give the Coalition much the strongest hand it has had in the Senate since it came to power.

At last, some commentary on the Senate count. Only one of the results is in doubt, with New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia all turning in good old-fashioned results of Coalition three, Labor two and Greens one, Jacqui Lambie snaring a seat in Tasmania at the expense of a third Liberal, and the territories behaving as they always do.

The exception is Queensland, where the third Liberal National Party candidate, the second Labor candidate, and the first candidates of the Greens and One Nation are in a game of musical chairs in which one will miss out when the music stops. In actuality, LNP and One Nation are pretty much home and hosed at this point, so the issue is whether the last seat will go Labor or Greens.

Based on the primary vote, it looks like Labor will miss out, reducing them to a single Senate seat, for which the only precedents are the Western Australia and South Australian results in 2013. Labor has only 0.60 quotas spare after the election of its first candidate, adrift of the LNP on 0.76, One Nation on 0.72 quotas and the Greens on 0.68. Probably the leading authority on the count is Ross Leedham on Twitter, who it appears expects Labor to narrow the primary vote gap a little on late counting, and then to take it up to the Greens with preferences.

To get a sense of how preferences are likely to behave, I have wrangled with the data file from the 2016 election, to produce “four-party preferred” measures for the various minors and micros who will be excluded from the count. This only uses above-the-line votes, and uses Australian Liberty Alliance preferences for Fraser Anning’s party, Family First’s for Australian Conservatives, the Renewable Energy Party’s for two micros with “climate” in their names, and the Health Australia Party for an anti-vaxxer party. Some very small parties that couldn’t be matched are ignored.

With these results used to project the preferences of the small parties, the Greens’ lead over Labor extends slightly, from 1.1% to 1.3%. This is somewhat contrary to the assessment of Kevin Bonham, who used preference guesstimates to conclude Labor would close the gap but not by enough. These estimates look like they might be on the high side for Labor, and I have further credited the Greens with some fairly heavy duty preference flows from micro-party minnows Bonham hasn’t bothered with.

Two complications arise from the United Australia Party, which will be the last party excluded before the conclusion. One is their how-to-vote card, which recommended a second preference to the LNP and a lower order preference to Labor. This renders unreliable the projection I have extrapolated from the tiny Palmer United Party vote in 2016, which gives One Nation too many Palmer preferences and the LNP too few. However, I’m projecting both to do well enough to win seats in any case.

The other is the possibility raised by Kevin Bonham that either the LNP or One Nation will make a quota before the UAP is excluded. If the former, UAP votes following the how-to-vote card will end up with Labor instead of the LNP, potentially making them competitive in the race against the Greens. However, I’m projecting the LNP to be fairly well short of a 14.3% quota with 13.0% at the point where the UAP are excluded, with One Nation also just shy at 14.0%.

With all that in mind, I’m going to work on the basis of a result of Coalition three and one seat each for Labor, One Nation and the Greens in offering the following summary of the state of the Senate post-election.

New South Wales. With the Coalition on 2.72 quotas, Labor on 2.11 and the Greens on 0.60, the result here looks sure to be three, two and one seats respectively, unless One Nation on 0.35 quotas can do something astounding on preferences. Jim Molan has clearly failed in his bid to have below-the-line votes overturn his demotion on the Senate ticket – he appears to be getting about 80% of the below-the-line votes, which could be generously estimated to account for 10% of the total. That would leave him with about 3% of the vote, or 0.2 quotas, to take on Nationals candidate Perin Davey, who will have the 0.7 or so quota surplus left after the election of the second Liberal.

Victoria. Very similarly to New South Wales, the Coalition are on 2.54 quotas, Labor on 2.23 and the Greens on 0.70, guaranteeing a result of three, two and one. Way behind the Greens on 0.20 quotas apiece are Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and One Nation. Hinch’s failure is something of a surprise, his 2.8% vote share being well below the 3.7% recorded by his party at the state election last November. Presumably the 2.5% United Australia Party vote, modest as it was, came largely at his expense.

Western Australia. A clean result of Liberal three (2.93 quotas), Labor two (1.96 quotas) and Greens one (0.82 quotas). One Nation polled a reasonably solid 5.5%, but not nearly as well as the Greens, who recorded an insurmountable 11.7%.

South Australia. Three Liberal (2.63 quotas), two Labor (2.16) and one Greens (0.78), with One Nation too far behind the pace on 0.32.

Tasmania. Two Liberal (2.21 quotas), two Labor (2.17 quotas), one Greens (0.88) and one Jacqui Lambie (0.61).

Of swings and misses: episode two

Talk of a new industry body to oversee polling standards gathers pace, even as international observers wonder what all the fuss is about.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – or the Herald/Age, to adopt what is evidently Nine Newspapers’ own preferred shorthand for its Sydney and Melbourne papers – have revealed their opinion polling will be put on ice for an indefinite period. They usually do that post-election at the best of times, but evidently things are more serious now, such that we shouldn’t anticipate a resumption of its Ipsos series (which the organisation was no doubt struggling to fund in any case).

This is a shame, because Ipsos pollster Jessica Elgood has been admirably forthright in addressing what went wrong – and, importantly, in identifying the need for pollsters to observe greater transparency, a quality that has been notably lacking from the polling scene in Australia. In particular, Elgood has called for the establishment of a national polling standards body along the lines of the British Polling Council, members of which are required to publish details of their survey and weighting methods. This was echoed in a column in the Financial Review by Labor pollster John Utting, who suggests such a body might be chaired by Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University, who oversees the in-depth post-election Australian Election Study survey.

On that point, I may note that I had the following to say in Crikey early last year:

The very reason the British polling industry has felt compelled to observe higher standards of transparency is that it would invite ridicule if it sought to claim, as Galaxy did yesterday, that its “track record speaks for itself”. If ever the sorts of failures seen in Britain at the 2015 general election and 2016 Brexit referendum are replicated here, a day of reckoning may arrive that will shine light on the dark corners of Australian opinion polling.

Strange as it may seem though, not everyone is convinced that Australian polling really put on all that bad a show last weekend. Indeed, no less an authority than Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has just weighed in with the following:

Polls showed the conservative-led coalition trailing the Australian Labor Party approximately 51-49 in the two-party preferred vote. Instead, the conservatives won 51-49. That’s a relatively small miss: The conservatives trailed by 2 points in the polls, and instead they won by 2, making for a 4-point error. The miss was right in line with the average error from past Australian elections, which has averaged about 5 points. Given that track record, the conservatives had somewhere around a 1 in 3 chance of winning.

So the Australian media took this in stride, right? Of course not. Instead, the election was characterized as a “massive polling failure” and a “shock result”.

When journalists say stuff like that in an election after polls were so close, they’re telling on themselves. They’re revealing, like their American counterparts after 2016, that they aren’t particularly numerate and didn’t really understand what the polls said in the first place.

I’m not quite sure whether to take greater umbrage at Silver’s implication that Antony Green and Kevin Bonham “aren’t particularly numerate”, or that the are – huck, spit – “journalists”. The always prescient Dr Bonham managed a pre-emptive response:

While overseas observers like Nate Silver pour scorn on our little polling failure as a modest example of the genre and blast our media for failing to anticipate it, they do so apparently unfamiliar with just how good our national polling has been compared to polling overseas.

And therein lies the rub – we in Australia have been rather spoiled by the consistently strong performance of Newspoll’s pre-election polls especially, which have encouraged unrealistic expectations. On Saturday though, we saw the polls behaving no better, yet also no worse, than polling does generally.

Indeed, this would appear to be true even in the specifically Australian context, so long as we take a long view. Another stateside observer, Harry Enten, has somehow managed to compare Saturday’s performance with Australian polling going all the way back to 1943 (“I don’t know much about Australian politics”, Enten notes, “but I do know something about downloading spreadsheets of past poll data and calculating error rates”). Enten’s conclusion is that “the average error in the final week of polling between the top two parties in the first round” – which I take to mean the primary vote, applying the terminology of run-off voting of the non-instant variety – “has been about five points”.