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How to guess the political will of the country

datePosted on 17:42, June 26th, 2009 by Anita

Logic says that the recent Key/National scandals and a week budget have got to be damaging National’s popularity, yet the polls are barely moving. l’ve been thinking about why this is and I have come up with three possibilities (others very welcome!)

  1. Outside the beltway no-one actually cares – none of the issues resonate with swing voters. Worth and Mt Albert were a side show for politics geeks, and no-one holds National responsible for the economy tanking.
  2. People are turning off National but they’re not turning to anything else. National may be losing its gloss, but Labour doesn’t look any more appetizing than it did in November last year.
  3. The election is a long way away and people will stick to their 2008 preference for a bit would seem fickle to switch allegiances so soon, and perhaps people feel they need to give Key a little longer to show his true mettle.

How, in the face of polls which simply ask how you would vote (a lagging indicator of mood), can we really judge the mood of the country?

18 Responses to “How to guess the political will of the country”

  1. Thomas Beagle on June 26th, 2009 at 19:12

    I’m probably in the second category, I held my nose and voted against Labour last time with the hope that they’d reinvent themselves and come back next term after the economy screwed the Nats.

    National have been more disappointing than I expected, but I really wasn’t expecting very much from them anyway.

    Labour have hardly even registered since the election. I was glad to see them finally recognising some of their errors, but apart from that the only thing I’ve seen from them is their involvement in the Richard Worth scandal. And no one emerged from that looking very good.

    The Greens are starting to look better and better. They actually seem to have ideas and proposals and policies. I’m even thinking of signing up…

  2. Lew on June 26th, 2009 at 20:23

    Another question is, why do we care? It’s all tea-leaf reading at this point, and peoples’ declared preferences have little validity since nothing is at stake.


  3. GC Martin on June 26th, 2009 at 20:24

    what do you know about poll audit/s? Like who is doing them.. why indeed do them when their is ‘no change’.?

    Is it, in point of fact (whoever’s) a monitor of like-minded voters.. or at least a majority of so like-minded..

    And if so, in service to whom..?

    Alternate considerations would IMHO include recession shock.. and acceptance of who pulls the purse strings.. ruling over political leanings.. to affect (effect) the peoples’ will.

  4. Anita on June 26th, 2009 at 20:34

    Another question is, why do we care? It’s all tea-leaf reading at this point, and peoples’ declared preferences have little validity since nothing is at stake.

    I’m not sure it’s interesting in terms of predicting the 2011 election, but it’s interesting because it is an indication of what people care about. If we read the superficial story from the polls they don’t care about any of the Worth, Lee, budget or recession issues – but that seems really unlikely.

    So, if we can’t use the polls to find out what people care about, what can we use?

  5. jarbury on June 26th, 2009 at 20:40

    I think that Labour is suffering a bit because they’re not presenting a “this is how we’d do things differently” clear enough.

    The Greens have some great ideas in the Green New Deal. Labour need to get their act together and come up with something similar.

  6. Anita on June 26th, 2009 at 21:07


    Do you think the Green New Deal is getting out there? I barely know what it is, and I’m a Green voter :)

  7. jarbury on June 26th, 2009 at 21:22

    Anita, it’s not getting out there enough I certainly agree. My bigger point was that Labour should be putting together something similar – they generally have a wider audience than the Greens and would probably have more luck getting a stimulus package out there than the Greens have.

    There’s an interesting thread over at Kiwiblog (shock horror I know) about Phil Goff and how he probably needs to let the country “get to know him” a bit better. I worry that he’s a bit too “Bill English” (competent but not that electable) and not enough “John Key” (less competent but more electable).

  8. Lew on June 26th, 2009 at 22:17


    So, if we can’t use the polls to find out what people care about, what can we use?

    Framed this way it makes more sense. It looked like you were asking a question like “why are the polls so wrong, and how can we reinterpret them to make them right?”

    There’s still no clear answer, though. It’s going to be an aggregate of factors – the by-election in Mt Albert has represented a strong swine toward Labour, though not really through any fault of their own; the submissions on electoral finance and Auckland governance will be interesting; the s59 referendum will generate a lot of heat but not a lot of light – frankly, I’d have preferred a more meaningful question even if it was meaningful enough that there was a risk the government would act on it, since it would at least tell us something useful. Also of interest will be the submissions to the NZGB on the spelling of Wanganui (they close 17 August, and I will be making a submission); and even more importantly (though it’s not been covered in any depth) the report by the Foreshore and Seabed review panel to Chris Finlayson, which is due this coming Tuesday. And a bunch of other things, for which I likely have ideological blind spots.

    So a matter of triangulation, or polyangulation if you prefer.


  9. Anita on June 26th, 2009 at 23:33


    Hm… I’ve removed a sentence, I don’t know if it’s now more or less confusing :)

    Most of the examples you’ve given are squarely measures of the politically engaged. The referendum might be broader, but given the expected low turnout even that won’t be a terribly good measure. There are good clues about the politically engaged, but how safe is it to polyangulate (an awesome word :) from us to the disengaged?

  10. Lew on June 26th, 2009 at 23:45


    There are good clues about the politically engaged, but how safe is it to polyangulate (an awesome word :) from us to the disengaged?

    It isn’t at all :) But the general absence of populist means of feeding information back into the elite political sphere renders a lot of what the disengaged care about unknowable (outside their sphere, though it’s not as distinct as that).

    I rely on agenda setting theory a lot here, on the basis that the things the disengaged tend to care about have to come from somewhere, and are usually derived from the things the engaged (or ‘elites’) care about, by way of the usual channels through which elites can exercise information agency but to which the disengaged generally only have passive access.

    The issues I list will all be on the news, and because of that they’ll all be picked up to a larger or smaller degree in popular media and therefore at water-cooler, dinner-table, trackside and taxi-cab conversations.

    I think we sort of have to go on what we can know, rather than speculate on what we can’t possibly. Still, we probably all have access to that disengaged sphere (the more I use this word the less I like it) if we want to exercise it – that is to say, we all have relatives or friends whose opinions on such matters stop at “the bloody government should just lock up all the boy racers and the country would be a better place”, or similar. Not very methodologically sound, but better than pure speculation.


  11. sonic on June 27th, 2009 at 00:28

    I think that Labour is suffering a bit because they’re not presenting a “this is how we’d do things differently” clear enough.

    That is because, in any fundamental terms, they would not do anything differently.

  12. BK Drinkwater on June 27th, 2009 at 03:08

    This poll is way too blunt an instrument to measure what we’re looking for. It’s a “who would you vote for?”, plus a two-party preferred vote (“Government vs Opposition”), plus a “right/wrong direction?” (By the by: of those three, the best predictor of election results is almost always the two-party choice, but it’s way too far out from 2011 to read anything into the numbers there.) This poll tells us nothing at all about Mt Albert, Worth, the Budget, or the economy.

    I’d bet dollars to donuts that National and Labour do more detailed tracking polling: probably along the lines of: “Do you approve/disapprove of X?”, followed by “How important is X to you?”.

    This is a safe bet: I got polled pretty recently. Poor Mr Goff! I hammered him.

    In the absence of decent public polling numbers on the more detailed stuff, we have to resort to tea-leaf reading. Sadly, since we’re all bloggers here, we’re way too close to everything to be able to do that in an objective way, but way too far from the action to get a peek at the numbers. It’s the worst of both worlds.

  13. Paul Robeson on June 27th, 2009 at 09:56

    Ahhh sonic.

    So Labour would be ramming through fire at will, council spending caps, introducing a unelected government oligarchy, pushing through development on the Auckland wharf without consultation, cutting programmes for adult education, closing Child Youth and Family offices, refusing to provide equal wages to different sexes because it’s the recession, punishing the innocent without charging them by crushing cars, flannelling about an uncosted, unaudited cycleway as our economy tanks, straightjacketing Auckland into a single administrative region soon to become John Banks personal fiefdom, copying John Howard in boosting private school funding, refusing to invest in our future via the fast foward programme, appointing Christine Rankin to a body she publicly disagrees with about the right to assault children, preparing the immensely beneficial ACC for ‘competition’.

    Load of rubbish old chap. Labour would be a quite different government. With its own flaws like introducing light bulbs to save on electricity bills and Kyoto obligation costs. But quite different.

  14. George D on June 27th, 2009 at 19:26

    Opinion polling is ridiculously unreliable.

    Firstly, you only get those for whom you have phone numbers (this excludes a great number of mobile only people at this stage, and those without phones at all). Secondly, you only get people who answer the phone. This might sound unremarkable, but certain people are more likely to be home than others. Thirdly, you only get people who are willing to do your survey. This is a small subsection of those who answer the phone. And finally, your answers aren’t necessarily much of an indication for those who haven’t thought about their voting preferences.

    Opinion polls are better than reading tea leaves, but only just.

  15. jarbury on June 27th, 2009 at 20:44

    We can hassle opinion polls as much as we like, but every since we switched to MMP they’ve been pretty damn accurate at predicting election results.

  16. George D on June 28th, 2009 at 21:09

    We can hassle opinion polls as much as we like, but every since we switched to MMP they’ve been pretty damn accurate at predicting election results.

    They do give a fair indication of the mood of the country, and some are better than others.

  17. StephenR on June 29th, 2009 at 08:48

    Opinion polling is ridiculously unreliable.

    I recall seeing a pollster defending the reliability re: all the stuff you mentioned – in this case they had quotas of all groups to reach (elderly, young profressionals, teenagers etc etc) and they just keep ringing till they get them. That would seem to get a pretty wide array of people, with the relatively insignificant caveat that ‘they were willing’, IMHO.

  18. George D on June 29th, 2009 at 11:33

    I’ve worked in call centres, including for a polling company a couple of years ago.

    We had quotas of ages and sex and Maori to get, and would keep ringing until we got the allocated number of each. We also asked to speak to the person in the house with the next birthday to come to the phone. This all reduced error considerably. Certain groups were pretty hard to get, however, despite their proportion being as large as others.

    There is no such thing as a perfect poll, and outside election periods I would say that they’re pretty unreliable (although there is no way of measuring that). As an election comes up, people get more interested in answering, and more likely to ‘know’ who they’re voting for.

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