Polling – choose your own adventure or look at the aggregates and the detailed information

Yesterday, there was an opinion poll released by Essential Media Communications that showed the federal two party preferred vote at ALP 46 and the Coalition 54. The voting intentions were ALP 36, Coalition 48, The Greens 8 and the Others/Independents 8.

This morning, The Australian newspaper published the latest Newspoll which showed the federal two party preferred vote at ALP 49 and the Coalition 51. The voting intentions were ALP 38, Coalition 44, The Greens 9 and Others 9. This is a similar position to where things were at the last federal election albeit with The Greens slightly down and the Others slightly up.

This afternoon, a Roy Morgan face to face poll will probably be released that will probably show another result entirely, although their face to face polling isn’t considered as reliable for various reasons.

All of these polls show different results and in the end they’re only as good as their methodologies allow them to be.

Ronald Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin in his book “The Greatest Communicator” wrote that one of the reasons Reagan was able to succeed in politics was because he understood that each number on every piece of polling information he viewed represented the face of a person who had their own unique personality and opinions as to what was happening in their national conversation. This allowed him as a leader to focus on what he thought was important: protecting and comforting the people who put him in the job in order to build a secure base for America’s future. Technology may have changed things, but I think this is more true now than it was back then.

You’ll often hear people on both sides of politics talk about “the trend being their friend” in relation to polling. I think that applies more to the horse race and the media cycle rather than what’s really happening in the electorate. This view treats people like numbers rather than people which is part of the reason why the public disengage from the national conversation. What’s in it for them? They’ve got their lives to live. They want to know how things are relevant for them. Not who’s trending a particular way in certain opinion polls!

One of the things I don’t like about the political class is how you’ll often see people choose their own adventure based upon individual polls that reflect their partisan agenda. At the present moment, you’ll probably see this in the form of the ALP trying to talk about the Newspoll as much as possible and the Coalition countering by trying to talk about the Essential Media poll.

In a couple of weeks there will be new numbers that will probably show slightly different results. The results won’t change because the public have changed their opinion due to what’s happened in the national conversation over that period. They’ll most likely be small movements within the margin of error. In other words, not much will have changed in the next fortnight.

On many of these individual polls (I’m using the term “individual polls” to describe polls conducted over a period of time by one organisation rather than polls that merely reflect a particular data point at a single period in time), you’ll more likely than not see the movement from poll to poll go towards where the aggregate trend lines are. If they don’t and there’s a large difference between the individual poll and the trend line, it’s usually an outlier and the individual poll will tend to compensate back towards the trend line over a period of time. The media will often attribute these movements, up or down, to events in the national conversation without evidence or appreciating the fact that the polls are simply correcting themselves by organically going back towards, above or below the boring overall average. That they have to make things seem entertaining is an unfortunate reality of their business model and it leads to a lot of stupid things. This has happened a lot over the last year.

When I thought the media controlled public opinion, I thought these individual polls by themselves were everything. Now I understand that in order to see things clearly, you need to look at the aggregate polling because they tend to be using more information, bigger samples, multiple methodologies and better tools.

There are a number of very reliable sources online who go into far more detail on polling such as Possum Comitatus, Poliquant, Kevin Bonham, Mark the Ballot and William Bowe to name a few. They also tend to show a lot of the smaller things that affect public opinion in relation to information on demographics, the economy and so on which usually gets left out of the mainstream coverage of politics.

Due to the Nate Silver phenomenon in the United States and because this is an election year, there’s a very high likelihood that more of these types of sources will show up in Australia as the year progresses which will show a more complete picture based on a larger amount of relevant information rather than individual poll results by themselves which are often used to promote the horse race in order to sell newspapers.

The purpose for writing this post was mainly to suggest there’s a better way than getting caught up in the “choose your own adventure” thought process and paying constant attention to the horse race and the 24 hour news cycle which ultimately leads to partisan stupidity and light entertainment rather than being reasonably well informed.

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One thought on “Polling – choose your own adventure or look at the aggregates and the detailed information

  1. Ataxaria January 15, 2013 at 4:35 am Reply

    I agree with your comments. The reduction of people to quantifiable objects is the first step towards dehumanising them.

    On another tack, it might be interesting to spot which party first uses the polls to claim ‘underdog’ status as the election approaches.

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