Voting against one’s rational interests

Right now, most of the talk in the national political conversation is about who is going to win the next federal election and what is happening to the federal ALP.

The Essential Media Communications (EMC) poll this week (25th of February, 2013) produced some very interesting results that tell us far more than most of the media commentary surrounding federal politics of late. Normally I’d analyse dynamics with information pulled from multiple sources but EMC did their job so well this week that I’m going to ignore everything else and use their poll alone.

We’ll start by looking at whether voters believe the federal ALP government deserves to be re-elected or not.

Q. As of now, do you think the current Federal Labor Government of Julia Gillard deserves to be re-elected?

Total

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Yes, deserves to be re-elected

26%

66%

4%

31%

No, does not deserve to be re-elected

57%

17%

88%

38%

Don’t know

17%

17%

8%

31%

This alone tells quite a story. 26% of respondents believe the federal ALP government deserves to be re-elected compared with 57% who believe they don’t deserve to be re-elected. If you go into the partisan breakdowns you can see that 88% of Coalition voters are waiting to take baseball bats to this government.

What about the other “side” of politics? Do the public trust the Coalition to govern Australia?

Q. Do you think the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott has shown it has the policies and leadership to be ready to govern?

Total

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Liberals are ready to govern

36%

6%

72%

4%

Liberals are not ready to govern

45%

82%

12%

79%

Don’t know

19%

13%

16%

17%

This says a lot as well. 36% believe the Liberals are ready to govern compared to 45% who say they’re not ready to govern. Sure, the response is a bit closer than it was when the same question was asked in relation to the federal ALP government, but it’s still quite telling. People don’t trust the Liberal Party!

Next we’ll look at whether voters think they’d be better or worse off under a Coalition government lead by Tony Abbott.

Q. If the Labor Party lost the next election, do you think the following would be better or worse under a Liberal/National Government led by Tony Abbott?

A lot better

A little better

Stay much the same

A little worse

A lot worse

Don’t use

NET (Better-Worse)

Political leadership

16%

19%

27%

10%

24%

4%

+1

Trust in Government

13%

19%

29%

12%

22%

4%

-2

Unemployment

7%

18%

39%

13%

19%

5%

-7

The economy overall

16%

22%

31%

12%

16%

4%

+10

The cost of living

6%

19%

36%

14%

21%

4%

-10

Interest rates

5%

13%

48%

14%

16%

5%

-12

Health services

6%

19%

36%

16%

20%

4%

-11

Job security

7%

17%

36%

14%

22%

4%

-12

Workers rights and conditions

5%

13%

37%

15%

25%

5%

-22

Company profits

13%

28%

37%

6%

10%

6%

+25

The environment

5%

13%

47%

11%

21%

4%

-14

Job creation

8%

20%

39%

13%

16%

4%

-1

Public services

6%

15%

42%

13%

20%

4%

-12

Benefits for people on Government support – such as pensioners and the unemployed

5%

13%

39%

16%

23%

5%

-21

Your personal financial situation

6%

16%

42%

15%

16%

4%

-9

What on earth is going on here? The numbers to focus on are the ones in bold. They show that on most of these attributes, voters overwhelmingly believe they’re not going to get a better government than the one they have right now. In many areas such as unemployment, cost of living, interest rates, health services, job security, workers rights and conditions, the environment, the public service, benefits for people on government support such as pensioners and the unemployed and voters personal financial situation, they think things will either remain the same or be much worse under an Abbott lead Coalition government. There is no positive sentiment towards the opposition which is what you’d usually in this sort of situation.

Most interestingly, voters believe the Coalition will be better with the economy than the current government but worse on everything that relates to the economy such as unemployment, interest rates, cost of living, their personal financial situation and so on.

The mood towards a potential Coalition government is either status quo or

Finally, we’ll look at the voting intention and two party preferred vote for this poll.

Q. If a Federal Election was held today to which party will you probably give your first preference vote? If not sure, which party are you currently leaning toward?

Q. If don’t know -Well which party are you currently leaning to?

Sample size = 1,899 respondents

First preference/leaning to

Election

21 Aug 10

4 weeks ago

29/1/13

2 weeks ago

11/2/13

Last week

18/2/13

This week

25/2/13

Liberal

44%

45%

44%

46%

National

3%

3%

3%

3%

Total Lib/Nat

43.6%

48%

48%

47%

49%

Labor

38.0%

35%

34%

35%

34%

Greens

11.8%

10%

9%

9%

9%

Other/Independent

6.6%

7%

9%

8%

8%

2PP

Election

21 Aug 10

4 weeks ago

2 weeks ago

Last week

This week

Total Lib/Nat

49.9%

54%

55%

54%

56%

Labor

50.1%

46%

45%

46%

44%

As you can see, the Coalition are miles ahead of the ALP on voting intention and the two party preferred vote. It’s been this way for quite some time and it’s the same story across pretty much every reputable outfit that conducts opinion polls on federal politics.

So the question is why do voters think the federal ALP government doesn’t deserve to be re-elected when they distrust and probably fear a potential Abbott lead Coalition government?

There are a couple of important points in relation to human psychology that need to be explored before we go any further.

Firstly people aren’t rational and often think things and do things that are inconsistent with their best interests. I’ve shown that above in relation to voters thinking a potential Coalition government would be better at handling the economy yet on every issue related to the economy they believe they will the Coalition will be worse than the current government.

American commentator Thomas Frank wrote a superb book titled “What’s The Matter With Kansas” that showed this dynamic in great detail. Most people would rationally assume that the people of Kansas would be far better off with the policies of a Democratic administration yet Kansas is a very solid Republican voting state because the Republicans figured out how to communicate in a way that persuaded the people of Kansas to vote for them. Some of the methods they’ve used to do that are quite ethically/morally questionable but that’s another topic for another day.

The same dynamic appears to be true with a lot of the Australian political debate.

The Liberal Party have figured out how to communicate to voters who you would rationally expect to be better off under an ALP government to vote for them even though it’s against their interests. I’ve covered how the Liberal Party have gone about doing this in reasonable detail as it relates to the issue of Industrial Relations and how they’ve gone about framing the political conversation.

People make decisions and behave emotionally and justify their decisions and behaviour rationally!

Secondly is the cognitive bias known as ‘the backfire effect.’ When information is presented to people who hold a particular view on an issue, there is a tendency for people to believe the opposite of what the information is saying with more emotional intensity.

For example, if I were to say under the ALP, interest rates have been lower than at any point during the Howard Coalition government, a Liberal voter would likely ignore that information and become more emotionally entrenched in the view that the Labor Party equates to debt and deficits.

Another example is where I might say the media has little to no influence over public opinion or how people vote on election day. It doesn’t matter how much information I provide that shows it to be true, many supporters of progressive politics simply can’t accept it and the view that the media has control over public opinion and how people vote on election day becomes more ingrained in their belief systems regardless of the evidence.

The best example I can think of that shows ‘the backfire effect’ in action in the national political conversation is what has happened with the carbon tax. It doesn’t matter how much information you provide people on how beneficial the policy is to the environment, what good it has done for the economy or how people’s living standards haven’t been affected, the view that it’s a bad policy at least in the short term, remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many of voters.

Framing and communication matter! It’s all well and good to cite long policy lists of achievement and what the data says in regards to how certain policies are working but if you aren’t dealing with people on an interpersonal level and there is no process of illustration or persuasion mechanism to get people to buy what you’re saying, it all falls on deaf ears.

Going back to the question of why people think the ALP government doesn’t deserve to be relected when there is overwhelming distrust of an Abbott Coalition government, I think it has to do with the ALP’s complete lack of understanding of how human psychology works.

Most of the strategy has been to rally the base. Maybe it has to do with an insecure party identity. Maybe it has to do with certain people wanting to hold onto their positions of power regardless of the larger interests of the party and the federal government. Maybe it has to do with ALP members and supporters not liking the society the party created during the Hawke and Keating governments. Maybe it’s a combination of those things.

In the end, I believe the ALP have failed to communicate to Coalition voters. There is no real emphasis on what people value in the economy and framing communication to seize control of the national conversation. It’s all be been targeted at people who will vote for the ALP regardless of what they say.

There has been no real attempt to get inside the mind of how someone who is prepared to vote for the Liberal Party thinks and what would persuade them to vote for the ALP and this is where the Coalition have a major advantage. They have thought in terms of how a blue collar Labor voter thinks. They have hit on the hot buttons of economic security and protection by constantly talking about how this government operates in terms of processes and focusing on the emotions behind policies such as the carbon tax, the mining tax and asylum seeker policy and framing all of their communication in a negative way towards the Labor base.

It’s very hard to persuade someone to see issues in the same way you see them if you don’t understand where your opponents supporters are coming from and where they have common ground with you. The ALP’s lack of understanding of this point is why you’ll see polling on issues that shows Coalition voters overwhelmingly disapproving of ALP policies even if those policies are what they’d support on another level of awareness.

The longer the ALP remains in the mode of thinking that believes people rationally follow their own self interest and make decisions without any reference to emotional values, the longer the Coalition will get away with being avoiding scrutiny in relation to key policies and petty political game playing.

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10 thoughts on “Voting against one’s rational interests

  1. Drag0nista February 28, 2013 at 7:51 am Reply

    Reblogged this on AusVotes 2013.

  2. Sam Lin February 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm Reply

    The key numbers that stand out to me in the polling on various policy areas is the “Stay much the same” column, which pretty consistently sit at a third or more of the sample. Taken along with the question on whether Labor deserves re-election, I’d take this to mean that other than partisans, most people are sufficiently satisfied that nothing much will change with a Coalition win that they’re willing to throw out a government that they don’t much like.

    • Gordon February 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm Reply

      Good point. It’s either a status quo or a worse reaction. There’s no positive mood towards the Coalition which is what you’d usually expect in this kind of situation. It goes a way to explaining the disillusionment in the electorate.

  3. intuitivereason February 28, 2013 at 11:48 pm Reply

    I suspect that many people aren’t going to effectively seperate that question from the simpler ‘Do you expect the follwing to improve or to get worse over the next three years’. Or the response to those questions if the Labor government was to regain power.

    I think people recognise that government doesn’t actually make that much difference.

    This doesn’t negates the good points you make regarding Labor’s focus.

    • Gordon March 1, 2013 at 1:10 am Reply

      I think it’s more the case that people want government to make a difference and they have high expectations of government but they never feel it in their lives and constantly feel let down. Which explains the public’s reaction to what’s happened to the mining tax. High expectations but when they see the result after 6 months they switch off

  4. Christopher Polis March 1, 2013 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Not a bad a statement of the situation.

    Regarding the mining tax, I don’t know that the government was really able to communicate the good idea at the heart of it, because they were committing twofold theft in their implementation. First they were attempting to steal a revenue source from the states; second they were changing the rules part way through multi billion dollar contracts. While a lot of people got the sense of what the government was trying to achieve, everyone understood the point the miners made in return.

    And yes, the final reality is another let down.

    There is an inherent gap between the expectations a government must set to be elected and what government can deliver in terms of change.

  5. Miglo March 12, 2013 at 10:46 pm Reply
  6. […] Voting against one’s rational interests. […]

  7. Ricky (Tory Torcher) March 13, 2013 at 1:42 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Political Jelly and commented:
    Interesting analysis of poll statistics for the Federal Election. Are people just ambivalent toward the state of politics in Australia?

  8. mikisdad March 13, 2013 at 5:11 am Reply

    This really gives the lie to the notion commonly voiced by politicians of all persuasions that, “the voters are capable of examining the evidence and determining what is best for them”, i.e for which party to vote.

    Given the self interest demonstrated by many of our politicians, even to the point of clearly identified and not infrequent examples of outright corrupt behaviour, and an almost constant absence of moral and ethical behaviour, that most voters are disillusioned is not surprising.

    However, despite all of this I am still amazed that working class voters can contemplate voting for a party which will operate against their interests in almost every respect on any issue. I also find it hard to accept the extent of the belief in the continuing myth that the Liberal Party are better economic managers.

    I find it completely alarming that there is so little regard for the importance of attending to environmental issues when, without determined action, we won’t have a world to live in for much longer – and if we do, it certainly won’t be worth living in.

    What this survey says to me is that if voters *are* capable of assessing issues rationally, they are, for some reason, choosing not to do so, even to the extent of making decisions that are clearly not in their own interests.

    It appears fairly certain that many voters are ambivalent because they don’t see anything as changing their lot regardless of which party is elected. However, I think that there is a more fundamental problem underlying these sorts of behaviours and that is the inculcation of selfish materialism in our society and the soporific effects of mass entertainment media, coupled with the decreasing rigour and increasing focus on narrow vocational programs in our universities. Increasingly, our school system not only socialises in a narrow and moronic way but even what it does that could pass for *education* has been watered down to mirror ‘painting by numbers’. Unfortunately, this situation is filtering gradually upwards so that even many a doctoral thesis is barely comprehensible, not because of its significance or depth of investigation but because it tackles a trivial or meaningless topic and is written so badly.

    Some of us are not ambivalent and actually bleed for the nation and the welfare of its citizens and those seeking refuge here but we are then labelled as riff-raff, trouble-causers, *socialists* (which appears now to have become a derogatory term) or “pie in the sky” dreamers who don’t have realistic goals.

    This survey has simply confirmed my worst fears – that there is little hope – that the rich, selfish, greedy, and powerful will continue to manipulate things for their own short term gain, not even considering the welfare of their own children, grandchldren, and great-grandchildren – let alone those already at the bottom of the heap. All I can do is weep – and hope that I can pick myself up and fight it some more – but I have less energy every day, as I think, do so many others.

    Sad is too simple a word – disastrous, is much closer to a description of this situation.

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