The great American football coach Vince Lombardi once quipped that "if winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?"
It’s a sentiment that will be readily understood in Canberra, where barely a week goes past without feverish speculation in the run-up to an opinion poll. The release of a poll is then generally followed by a post-orgasmic patter of political small talk, as the performance is dissected in statistical glee.
Since their invention as a form of political campaigning by George Gallup in the 1930s, opinion polls have slowly but inexorably moved to the centre of the political debate. Today they dominate the discussion of party politics in countries like the United States and Australia. Savvy poll bloggers have become some of the most influential commentators n the political media — voices like Nate Silver in the US, or Scott Steel and Peter Brent here in Australia.
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy recently wrote a perceptive piece about the influence of Silver and his kin. In it, he pointed out that one of the most important things to understand about the modellers like Silver is this very influence. "People take it very seriously: he is widely regarded as a political astrologer who gets things right," Cassidy writes.
The same is true here in Australia. The political classes — the press gallery journalists, the bloggers, the professional campaigners and the politicians themselves — take the polls and the statistical models built on their data very seriously indeed. It’s not just that they have predictive power — though quite clearly they do. And it’s not just because opinion poll data offers a quantitative veneer to a business inevitably infected with bias and intuition. Perhaps the most important contemporary effect of opinion poll ubiquity is the signposting effect that poll trends can have for the political discussion more generally.
I’m talking about the general climate and the framing of political discussion that a clear trend on the polls tends to promote.
You can see the talismanic significance of poll data in the way politics is reported, particularly by the Canberra press gallery. A typical momentum shift is playing out in Canberra right now. What’s happened? A series of opinion polls have shown a trend towards the government — the first such happy news for a beleaguered government in some time.
That’s "changed the dynamic" — of whatever terms it is used by journalists like myself to gnostically refer to changes in political fortune. Again, the change is more about perceptions than it is about electoral reality or policy achievements, but it is no less important for that. For much of its second term in office, Julia Gillard’s Government has appeared destined for defeat at the 2013 election. At some points the government has trailed the Opposition by an astounding 20 points in the two-party preferred analysis, portending an electoral wipe-out of historic proportions.
When a government (or for that matter, an opposition) trails in the polls by that much, it can be difficult for journalists and the general public to take it seriously. Seemingly every news article gets prefixed or suffixed with a one-liner about the party’s dismal position in the polls. An air of inevitability sets in. Backbench morale can disintegrate. Leadership speculation surfaces.
On the other side of the coin, the party enjoying the big lead gets a boost in positive coverage. Little scrutiny is applied to their various statements. The election result can seem almost pre-ordained.
This is the position Labor has found itself in for most of 2011 and 2012, as poll after poll showed a government on the ropes. It was particularly marked around coverage of the carbon tax, which the opinion poll data showed was very unpopular. In contrast, Tony Abbott and the Opposition got a fairly easy ride, and plenty of coverage every time they decided to attack the government on carbon.
But in recent weeks, a ray of light has glinted. A number of recent polls have shown Labor closing the gap. The most recent Newspoll actually had Labor at parity. The latest Nielsen has Labor on 48-52. Any way you look at it, Labor is suddenly competitive again.
As usual, the commentary has been swift and speculative. Michelle Grattan argued that this means Gillard is now safe from the ever-lurking forces of Kevin Rudd. "Better polling and an altered political climate mean Gillard can shrug off questions about McKew’s allegations," she writes. Dennis Shanahan made much the same point.
Attention now turns to the Liberal Party, with press gallery leader Phil Coorey reporting today that "several Liberal MPs" had told him that "Labor’s recovery was now clearly a trend and Mr Abbott needed to broaden his approach beyond attacking the carbon tax.". As for poll blogger Brent, he’s now arguing that the poll bounce will lead to the removal of Tony Abbott as opposition leader — which will in turn lead to the removal of Gillard as prime minister.
This is how the political circus moves on.
Polling doesn’t even have to be public for it to be influential. One of the main revelations about Maxine McKew’s new book about her time as a Labor parliamentarian, for instance, is that factional bosses were using private polling conducted by the party hierarchy to agitate for Kevin Rudd’s overthrow. McKew argues that "a sense of crisis was actually created around Rudd’s leadership and a principle tool in aiding and abetting that crisis was the use, or the misuse, of private party polling." The private polling reportedly showed that Kevin Rudd was perceived negatively in a series of marginal seats.
You can argue about whether that polling was accurate, and you can certainly argue about whether it was appropriate that party officials were apparently actively engaged in the white-anting of a sitting prime minster. But no-one appears to be rebutting McKew’s central point about the persuasive power of those internal polls. The internal party polling changed votes in the Labor caucus. It helped undermine Rudd’s leadership. That would not have been possible if poll data was not considered so important by the various players.
Informed observers tend to decry the influence of opinion polls on long-term policy reform, as George Megalogenis did in his excellent Quarterly Essay at the end of 2010. Megaologenis’ point — that the constant drumbeat of poll data proves irresistibly distracting for the politicos and the media — is a sound one. But it is also a fact of contemporary political life. The constant spin cycle of political commentary demands a way to keep score. Opinion polls provide that. And when they move, the political system moves with them — to the next endless merry-go-round.
It’s not quite meaningless: after all, we’re talking about who’s running the country. But it is certainly wearying. Like negative campaigning and personal attack tactics, the endless opinion poll commentary does not tend to improve the health of our democracy. It increases cynicism and degrades political engagement amongst voters.
But the opinion poll merry-go-round is not going to go away. Politics is the ultimate zero-sum game. Only one person can be prime minister. Only one major party can form government. And the people who care about that want to know who’s winning. Even if we take away the scoreboard, the players are still going to keep count.