Why the drought in New Zealand opinion polling matters

New Zealand has a severe lack of political polls and, without polling, political coverage relies on the opinions of a few Wellington-based journalists. Michael Appleton explains why that’s a bad thing.

New Zealand is suffering a severe political polling drought. In the first ten months of 2018, just seven opinion polls were publicly released: five by Colmar Brunton for TVNZ; and two by Reid Research for Newshub. This is dramatically fewer polls than we used to get.

In each of the past five electoral cycles (January till October in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 & 2015), the number of public polls released averaged 25 (range: 19-34). That’s more than three times what we’ve had this year. In that timeframe, the New Zealand Herald, Fairfax, the Sunday Star-Times and the National Business Review commissioned opinion polls. No longer.

Why are we seeing fewer polls? Money and newsworthiness are the two most obvious reasons. Polling costs many thousands of dollars that media organisations with tight budgets don’t have. And yet an opinion poll often does not last much longer than a single news cycle. Media organisations that did not commission it have a competitive reason to give a poll only cursory coverage. So the cost/benefit calculation simply does not stack up.

I wonder whether our news media’s move towards a greater focus on opinion journalism is another factor. Why spend big money on finding out what a randomly selected sample of voters think about politics when we can just ask one of our stable of instant take generators?

Scepticism about polling also plays a part. The Guardian recently pulled the plug on a monthly poll it had commissioned since 1989, saying its cost could no longer be justified because “scepticism about the reliability of polling makes them less newsworthy than they used to be”.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Pollsters are blamed for not foreseeing Brexit or Donald Trump’s victory. This is wrong-headed. Pollsters found Clinton ahead of Trump by an average of three percentage points; she in fact beat him nationally by two. Polls in the final fortnight of the Brexit campaign ranged from Leave by ten to Remain by ten. The only reasonable reading of these polls was that the outcome of the referendum was genuinely uncertain.

If there was a form of prognosticating that got things badly wrong in 2016, it was not opinion polling. It was the conventional wisdom formed by people paid to cover and commentate on politics. For whatever reason, these collective take-makers were overconfident about Remain and Clinton victories.

Here in New Zealand, our opinion pollsters pretty much nailed last year’s general election. Colmar Brunton and Reid Research both suggested National would clearly outpoll Labour and/but that National putting together a Parliamentary majority was not assured – with the balance of power likely to lie with NZ First. That is precisely what happened.

But should we care about our polling drought? Won’t an absence of polls lead to political coverage focusing less on the horse race and more on important policy issues?

Alas, no. The horse race is an inevitable part of political coverage. What polling does is inject some objective, quantitative information into the mix. Without polling, horse race coverage relies on impressionistic renderings from Wellington-based political journalists – based on what political party spin doctors are feeding them and what they can deduce from their own interactions with voters.

Even for those political journalists most adept at taking the pulse of the country, none of this is a substitute for a scientific reading of public opinion. Without regular polling, the stories we hear about our politics are stories completely conceived not in the minds of voters but in the thoughts of people working in the Parliamentary compound.

Another anti-polling argument is that politicians who are fed regular public polling become obsessed with it, often with disastrous consequences. The fact that The Australian newspaper publishes a Newspoll every fortnight is cited as the reason that our Australian cousins have seen four Prime Ministers deposed by their own party rooms in the past decade.

I don’t really buy this. The Newspoll has been around since the 1980s, and before Rudd, John Howard ruled for four terms despite periods of very low public standing. Our own Helen Clark held on to the Leader of the Opposition role for six long years in the 1990s, despite Labour falling to disastrous levels of support, behind both the Alliance and NZ First, in public opinion polls. Howard and Clark survived where Rudd and Turnbull didn’t because they were able to hang on to the confidence of their party’s MPs and grassroot supporters.

So what would good look like, in polling terms? This week, the US holds its midterm elections. American political analysts have a huge quantity of polling to inform their coverage. Dozens of polls are released every day. Based on this huge weight of data, it is possible to say that the Democrats are heavily favoured to win the House; and the Republicans are heavily favoured to hold on to the Senate.

In New Zealand, it would be great to have more and more varied polling data. I’d love not just more frequent party vote polling, but also headline numbers on voters’ views of the government and the major party leaders. It would be great to have a long-term data series on the questions: “do you approve or disapprove of the Government’s performance?” and/or “do you think the country is heading in the right direction or is on the wrong track?” And rather than preferred Prime Minister ratings – which are little more than name recognition contests – it would be great to have regular numbers on “do you have a favourable or unfavourable view of the Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition?”

All of this would cost money that media organisations seem not to have. I wonder, therefore, whether we need a new funding model for New Zealand political polling.

One option would be New Zealand’s media organisations banding together to form a consortium which would collectively fund some gold-standard polling. This would help defray the costs for individual media organisations, but would also help ensure that the polls receive broader and deeper coverage.

A second option would be media organisations trying to piggyback off those private polls that are currently done for political party clients, by Curia for National and UMR for Labour. Perhaps these polling firms would be prepared to release their data publicly some time after their political party clients receive them (say, a fortnight later?) for a reduced rate. This way, the political party client still has the benefit of getting the information first, but has some of the cost picked up by media organisations.

Whatever the way forward, the status quo is unappealing. Every few months, a poll drops. It gets a day of coverage and then is largely forgotten. In between drinks, we get selectively leaked snippets of private polls and other spin about how this or that political leader is doing brilliantly and/or terribly. In sum, what we get is lots of noise and very little signal.

The polling drought is certainly not among the biggest issues facing New Zealand, but it does matter. It’s impoverishing how we talk about our politics.


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