Monday 2 April 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Mainstream Media Polling.

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.


The Baron said...

Chris, I never thought I'd see one of the more reasoned members of the NZ left resort to "rogue poll" style arguments and disregard even a scant understanding of statistical sampling to back up your views.

All polls are a snapshot in time; and are indeed often outdated by the time they are published or broadcast. Snapshots date, and they fail to take account shocks to the electoral process; shocks like the masterful way (in a political sense) Peters played the ambiguity of the teatapes. None of that invalidates it as a method of measuring support, or invalidates the well established science behind it all. But you know all of this.

Statistically speaking, the best way of meeting your challenge of getting a true measure of national's support is by finding the poll with the largest sample and the most robust method. You cross out Horizon on the last point (I mean, seriously, Chris) and go with CB on the first one. Again, you know this too.

But despite all of this, your argument seems to boil down to "damn the polls cos I don't like what they tell me". To do so is committing a different sin - i.e. deluding yourself that the left don't have to work hard to build some semblance of electoral appeal again.

But I guess that blaming it all on the media is a nice easy way of avoiding some hard questions, isn't it?

David said...

Keep trying to breathe Chris, this piece sounds remarkably like the breath of socialism slowly exhaling from a body on the verge of becoming a corpse. It might not be the last gasp but the flame of enthusiasm appears to be flickering in the wind of international change whereby the Western world is inexorably turning it's back on the utopian dream. (yeah yeah mixed metaphores I know)

Shortly after the last election I participated in a number of discussions where the relevance of Labour's philosophy in the modern world was debated. Dyed-in-the-wool labour supporters held on to their dream and got quite antsi at the suggestion that a re-invented Labour would not be "Labour" at all and couldn't get their heads around the philosophical conflicts inherent in the move to the Centre under Shearer. I suppose that the discussions were held at The Standard is unsurprising - 'nuff said.

We are now however, getting similar suggestions out of US and Australia so perhaps there is something there.

It must be terribly difficult working out where the vote should go though with the Greens trying desperately to pretend that they are "mainstream" and hiding their socialist past under a cloak. Perhaps you are entering Winston's target demographic - now there is a thought to play with.

Chris Trotter said...

It is to suck the breath out of socialism that its enemies constantly attempt to paint it as a dying force.

I don't beieve I ever used the word "rogue" in the above posting. All I'm suggesting is that the "five firms", in their "57 separate polls" may have been guilty - by virtue of their methodology - of consistently overstating National's support.

That none of them was able to pick the 47 percent actual result reinforces my concern.

Whatever the cause of this over-estimation, the really dangerous aspect is the MSM's refusal to acknowledge it.

The utterly uncritical acceptance of these numbers is what upsets me, and the way they are used to bolster National's position.

Just ask yourselves, David and the Baron, how you would react if the situation was reversed.

I suspect you wouldn't be quite so trusting of the "science" if every media outlet was telling you that the Right was finished, a spent force, dead.

Though it's a nice thought.

Phil said...

All I'm suggesting is that ... "57 separate polls" may have been guilty - by virtue of their methodology - of consistently overstating National's support.


The election is only once every three years. The best you can accurately claim is the 5 polls released closest to the election overshot National's support.

What polls indicate at other times in the electoral cycle will reflect the mood at the time; they're not a forecast.

Olwyn said...

David @ 2.09pm. "...this piece sounds remarkably like the breath of socialism slowly exhaling from a body on the verge of becoming a corpse."

Tell that to George Galloway, whose left-of-Labour party RESPECT,has just soundly defeated the British Labour Party in the Bradford West bi-election. British Labour seems not to have been socialist enough for the citizens of Bradford West.

When you take Queensland into account as well, the problems seem to lie with with social democratic parties lacking the confidence to be socialist enough, rather than a world that is "so over" socialism. A constantly maintained right-leaning narrative, in which context polls must be seen, helps to stifle their confidence. But as George Galloway has shown, it is possible to stand up to that narrative and win.

David said...

Aha Chris, therein lies the difference. Those of us supporting the right do so with more open, more varied and broader philosophies than the intense and often linear approach of the Left. If the situation was reversed (and you of all people know that it has been) the right rallied, analysed and learnt. The biggest lesson was that the party was always bigger than the individuals within it. Result: the support base grew and the minds of all were refocussed.

What we are seeing today on the left is still denial and denigration as if somehow John Key is the antichrist and the only objective is to try and punch him out of the game. Allied to that is that Labour has straitjacketted itself in that the core philosophy cannot be modified because of history. "Labour is the political arm of the union movement" is still quoted but the union movement's days are numbered leaving Labour with nowhere to go, at least as long as it wants to hang on to the brand. It is a bit like Cadbury's wanting desperately to use some palm oil but to do so would destroy the brand built on 100% dairy based. A definite conundrum indeed.

I still maintain that your article sounded like the fight reflex is less intense than before.

Few on the right want the party of opposition to become the Greens, at least with Labour you knew who the "enemy" was and what he stood for, but it looks like that is the way it is trending and I will admit I fear for our future.

Alex said...

Both of the negative comments on this post completely miss the argument that Trotter is making. It is hard to see where this post could be faulted given that all it does is present two simple facts. 1) Every poll leading up to the election predicted a National majority. 2) This majority did not eventuate.
Therefore the only logical inference is that National's support in the polls is overstated. I would love to see a reasoned argument from the right against that proposition, but given the dross that has been put out by the two comments at the top, I don't see this happening.

Phil said...

Therefore the only logical inference is that National's support in the polls is overstated

No, that's not the only logical inference at all.

It's equally plausible that:

1) Support for National fell away in the final few days, with unfavourable narratives around tea-tape.

The EB fiasco distracted resources away from National's camapign in 2005 in the final few days, and there was a noticable dip in late polling.

2) Voter complacency kept some National-leaning voters at home.

There's evidence of that in 2002 - Labour underperformed their polling indicators because everyone 'knew' they were going to romp home.

Victor said...

Hi Olwyn

It's genuinely difficult to determine whether the Bradford West result reflects hunger for a left-wing alternative to Labour in a classic North-of-England post-industrial constituency or whether "Gourgeous George" is a case sui generis:

Olwyn said...

Hi Victor,

Yes, I realise that there is more than one interpretation of Galloway's win, especially considering his strong stand on Afghanistan, etc. And he has that fighting spirit and rhetorical ability that Winston Peters,who is not exactly left wing, also has.

However, I do think that voters seem to be more disenchanted with the centre-left version of corporate managerial government than they are with the right wing equivalent. They seem to expect better from the left, and are open to feeling let down by them, while having no such expectations of the right. After all, the Galloway factor does not explain Queensland, or the growing disenchantment with Gillard.

Brendan McNeill said...


George Galloway won in Bradford West because of his shameless pandering to the radical Islamic vote.

He is reported to have shouted "‘All praise to Allah!’ through a loud-hailer — having previously told a public meeting that if people didn’t vote for him, Allah would want to know why."

In a speech last month at the radical Finsbury Park mosque in London, Livingstone pledged to ‘educate the mass of Londoners’ in Islam, saying this would help to cement London as a ’beacon’ for the faith.

The fact that he won this election says more about the numbers of motivated and radicalized political Muslims in Bradford West, when compared to the more traditional English "working class".

This might also explain the new waves of English immigrants to this country, replacing the Kiwi's that head off to Australia.

There may well still be a place called "London" but don't expect to find much that's English in many of the suburbs.

This was a deliberate strategy of Labour and Tony Blair's immigration policy, believing that immigrants vote 'left', making this outcome all the more ironic.

Chris, I feel your angst. We had nine years of these polls telling us how much Kiwi's loved Labour, Helen Clark, and the paternalistic State.

Thankfully, we are experiencing some slight relief, at least for a season.

Hopefully it will take at least a generation to pass away before our collective memory is lost, and we re-elect another Labour Government.

Coquecigrue said...

Polls are what they are, blaming them seems a bit fruitless, though I agree the journalistic analysis may be a more interesting target to point at - prudently.
Rest simply the fact that we are living in a changing world, and people need convictions. Assumed righties just as assumed lefties parties are growing forces around the OCDE countries.
You got NZ first. (urk!)
But Mana is still so young and so Maori that few are seriously looking at it, for now. Or so it seems from my outsider point of view.
People indeed could decide to vote in the end on a tight election, even without conviction. But they have to hate for this. Key and National never managed to fulfill the "anyone but" process.

Frank said...

Perhaps this little bit of analysis and simple arithmetic might help shed light on why Colmar Brunton's poll is,

1. Inaccurate BS

2. Going to put the sh*ts into National's strategists

guerilla surgeon said...

"The historically very low voter turnout for the 2011 election may be a reflection of this “spiral of silence”.

More likely a result of the fact that labour has abandoned the poor.

Anonymous said...

Chris, what happened to your pinko media idolising the Labour party. Now your turning on it; clearly there is panic amongst the lefties you need a Nikita Khrushchev to stabilize the front at Helengrad.

Anonymous said...

A simple synopsis for the article is the mainstream media are lazy & reliant on dubious information, based on questionable statistics. I tend to agree.

This a problem for the health of New Zealand democracy, not just for the left or the right.


@Anon Helengrad? That's hilarious & original did you think of that yourself? Do you use that when you hit on girls in bars?

Anonymous said...

I still recall Colmar-Brunton's poll on the eve of the 2005 election: they had National leading by 5%, when in reality Labour outpolled the Nats by 2%. No-one ever called the pollsters up on that one.

Dr. Panopticon said...

Do not fear, Mr Trotter! Key is in no way anointed, for God's (sorry: Our Lord Karl Marx)did predict that the Right will not collapse away like the soiled petticoats it engenders, until it has attained the very pinnacle of self-deception and inflated optimism. Eevn during his lifetime Marx said the Soviet Revolution was too early to be the promsied end of Capitalism. So let us scoff together while we remember that this idiotic orgy of pollsterism and Teflon worship is, in fact, the early signs of the actual crisis Karl foretold. We are close, Mr. Trotter, very close.

Lew said...

Chris, I'm disappointed you didn't turn this into one of your historical spec-fic pieces: "Don't peer over the edge to see how many machine guns they have, you'll only lose your nerve. Ignorance is strength! Come on now boys, OVER THE TOP!"


Frank said...

"Chris, what happened to your pinko media idolising the Labour party. Now your turning on it; clearly there is panic amongst the lefties you need a Nikita Khrushchev to stabilize the front at Helengrad."

"Anon" (are you related to "Anon?), your frothing would be funnier if your spelling was better. It's "you're" not "your".

Anyway, carry on. The National Secret Police will be bashing down your door shortly. You have broken one of Dear Leader's un-written laws.

Anonymous said...

Hit the spot again Chris. We're ruled by the swingers - and for them, forget policy, ignore detail, it's the vibe.

The Vibe, people. And the vibrators - those 57 plastic, pseudo-polls and their 5,673 accompanying glossy images and phrases smiling and flirting from every yellow wank-rag controlled by the advertisers - have a lock on the clits of the twits.

Break the lock of those plastic cocks or forever hold our piece.

Mining, Mt Albert, Winnie, the Lenslide and the brief four-week porn-free election period pointed the way: it starts at the bottom.



Freddiemars said...

The mainstream polls don't include undecided voters, so are onviously skewed. Horizon gives a more accurate picture by including the undecideds.

MPledger said...

The polls actually do surpisingly well given the number of people contacted and the huge amounts of bias involved.

The Horizon poll I still think is going to be useful because they interview the same people time and again and now that they have had one election result they can calibrate their sample.

I think mid-term polls are always going to over-estimate major party support because most people don't care enough about politics to consider more than left or right and say Labour or National accordingly. When it gets nearer to the election people take more care with where they really stand and also strategise e.g. ACT and National in Epsom.

Also I think the undecideds tend to go against the norm i.e. a late rally for the opposition. Going with the norm doesn't take much effort and is an easy decision to make, going against the norm takes more consideration because you have to evaluate why you think going against the crowd is better.

Anonymous said...

Chris - You (very conveniently) missed out a poll. Frank - the analysis you refer to does that same thing.

This site, as well as KiwiBlog, contain the results for the final polls before the election.