Petrifying Effect: The constant overstatement of National's electoral support in mainstream media polls risks sending the Government's opponents into a "spiral of silence". Like the legendary Medusa, just looking at them may be enough to paralyse our will to resist the Right's on-going domination of the political discourse.
HERE WE GO AGAIN, the One News/Colmar-Brunton poll is out and, already, the network’s “journalists” are treating it as holy writ. Absolutely undeterred by the extraordinary discrepancy between the mainstream media’s poll-driven predictions and the actual election result, TVNZ and its partners in “churnalism” are once again assuming these polls provide a deadly accurate snap-shot of the public mood.
And just in case you think I’m being unfair, let me quote from one of the mainstream pollsters prime defenders, the US-based political scientist, Rob Salmond, who, on the eve of the 2011 election, alerted his Pundit readers to the fact that: “There have been 57 polls released this year by the five firms we follow, and all 57 of them estimated National would win the seats to govern alone. Fifty of those also estimated that National had an absolute majority of the votes, too.” Mr Salmond’s own prediction – based on his “Poll-of-Polls” – was that the National Party would receive 52 percent of the Party Vote.
The actual election result was very different from that predicted by Mr Salmond and the five firms he followed. Far from winning enough seats to govern alone, the National Party was forced to rely upon the support and/or co-operation of the Act, United Future and Maori parties. Far from securing the predicted absolute electoral majority, National received 47.3 percent of the Party Vote.
Even in the final fortnight of the campaign, when public interest in politics was presumably at its peak, the most influential of the mainstream media polls, Colmar-Brunton, still gave National 50 percent of the Party Vote – a result only just inside the agency’s margin of error. Curiously, Colmar-Brunton’s and the other mainstream pollsters’ predictions for the remaining political parties were much closer to the actual result – although none of them accurately predicted the electoral success of NZ First.
Those of us who’d hoped the Horizon Poll (whose results diverged wildly from the “five firms”’ polls) had discovered a more reliable methodology for sampling public opinion in New Zealand were similarly disappointed. Horizon correctly predicted NZ First’s return to parliament but was well astray of reality in most of its other predictions.
Which leaves those of us with an interest in New Zealand politics facing a big problem. How to get a fix on the true level of National Party support? If practically all of the “reputable” polling firms are consistently at least 3 percentage points north of National’s actual numbers, how can the electorate avoid being sucked into what political scientists call “the spiral of silence”? How do we prevent the media-driven perception of overwhelming support for one political party, or bloc, from silencing the existing and potential supporters of the “losing” side, and thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The historically very low voter turnout for the 2011 election may be a reflection of this “spiral of silence”. Is it realistic to suggest that a whole year of the “five firms” telling voters – in 57 separate polls no less! – that not only was National going to win, but win well enough to govern alone, had absolutely no effect on the final outcome? Isn’t it more likely that that tens-of-thousands of demoralised Labour voters, convinced that their party had already lost, simply could not see the point of visiting a polling-booth?
Let’s consider the counterfactual: that the mainstream pollsters, in 57 separate polls, showed National attracting between 46-49 percent of the Party Vote, and NZ First consistently cresting the 5 percent MMP threshold. Wouldn’t this have energised the electorate? Wouldn’t it have persuaded Labour supporters that, on election day, every vote was going to count? Wouldn’t that have lifted the turnout – and quite possibly produced a National Party defeat?
I think it might.
Which brings us back to the latest One News/Colmar-Brunton poll showing National on 51 percent. In the wake of at least a fortnight’s worth of bad political news, shouldn’t the producer of TVNZ’s Q+A programme, Tim Watkin, have used his blog to express just one or two tiny reservations about the poll? Don’t be silly! Mr Watkin (who is living proof of Upton Sinclair’s famous quip that “it is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”) responded to the poll’s results as if they had been handed down to him on stone tablets from Mt Sinai.
“The latest One News-Colmar Brunton poll is a kick in the pants for Labour. After a ministerial resignation and a fortnight where the whiff of cronyism was never far from National, the governing party can still command more than 50 percent in the polls. That's astounding.”
Yes, that’s right, Mr Watkin, it is “astounding” – as in “so surprisingly impressive as to stun or overwhelm”. But not, apparently, so surprising as to cause you to look back at Colmar-Brunton’s results, note their past failures, and raise even the slightest doubt as to their reliability. Instead, and so very predictably, you used the results to put the boot into Labour; describing them as “a kick in the pants”; and adding, just in case your readers missed the point, that: “even a damaged National Party that looks as wounded as it ever has still looks more attractive to most voters than [Labour] does.”
So, there it is, all you Labour supporters. There’s nothing you can do to dent the National Party juggernaut. Change your leader, change your policies, change your lucky underpants if you feel the need – nobody gives a damn. Because none of it will do you a blind bit of good. John Key is God’s anointed. He’s invincible. You don’t believe me? Then gaze upon this: Colmar-Brunton’s poll-generated Gorgon; TVNZ’s statistical Medusa.
And be turned to stone.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.