Brendan Nelson – Perpetrator or Scapegoat?
Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 22, 2008
Let me tell you a secret – Brendan Nelson is unpopular.
Are you shocked? Probably not.
Let me tell you another secret – The Coalition’s poor standing in the polls is all Nelsons fault.
Are you shocked at that? Probably not either, since we hear it everyday. But you ought to be shocked because it probably isn’t as true as its being made out to be.
Undoubtedly the leadership of a party will impact on the polling results, particularly the voting intention results that a party receives – but to blame all of that failure, or even most of it on the leader is probably a bit of a rough call.
We can see why everything is currently being blamed on Nelson though – the MSM is filled with simple creatures that prefer simple things to talk about, like each other for instance, or each others opinions even more so.
But in terms of the really simple things, there is nothing simpler than very small numbers.
And when we talk about very small numbers in politics, the Nightwatchman’s preferred PM ratings are the most obvious thing to grab on to.
In the politics of polling, there are three variables that take up the mindspace – voting intention, satisfaction ratings and preferred PM ratings.
But unfortunately, the historical, long term, consistent relationships between these variables are rarely paid attention to, so it’s probably worth recapping the statistically significant things we discovered about these variables from last years blogging and analysis.
1. Opposition satisfaction ratings are both covariant (meaning it moves together) with the primary and TPP vote, as well as being a leading indicator of the primary and TPP vote. When Opposition satisfaction ratings go up, on average, the primary and TPP vote moves up with it, as well as moving up in the next period – not by much, but by a little bit.
2. We also know that Opposition satisfaction ratings are covariant with the Preferred PM rating as well as being an ever so slight leading indicator of the Preferred PM rating.
3.The other thing we know is that the Primary and TPP vote is both covariant with, and a lagging indicator of the Preferred PM rating (meaning that the two measures either move together and/or the Preferred PM rating follows the primary and TPP votes with a slight lag.)
The latter being what started the Poll Wars between The Oz and the better informed blogging community.
The Preferred PM rating is essentially a meaningless beauty contest which has no statistical bearing on the vote. It either moves with changes in voting intention and satisfaction ratings, or lags behind them, and the relationship between the vote and the PPM is pretty tight as far as polling relationships go.
To demonstrate this, let’s make a spiffy chart. We’ll chart the Opposition Leaders Preferred Prime Minister rating against the size of the difference between the governments TPP vote and that of the Opposition. We’ll do it as a scatter plot with a regression line running though it, we’ll use monthly Newspoll averages over the period of the Howard government, and we’ll also mark on the chart where Nelson currently sits in this broad historical relationship (it’s a thumbnail – click it).
Nelsons current position is exactly where we would expect it to be in terms of the size of the governments lead in the TPP vote.
PPM is a function of voting intention, voting intention is covariant with, or a leading indicator of the oppositions PPM rating, and Nelsons current PPM rating sits smack bang on the regression line of the historical relationship.
So all up, there is no useful information here – zip, zilch, nadder. Nelsons PPM is where we would expect it to be with him leading a party currently experiencing a 19 point TPP vote gap.
The satirical coverage that the MSM gives this number is fair enough – it’s at record lows and good for some humour. But to give this number serious coverage is to completely miss the point of what PPM ratings actually are in practice, as well as what their relationship to voting intention really is.
The only marginally important thing about PPM ratings for the Opposition is in terms of it’s compositional make up – things like the the proportion of Coalition voters that prefer Nelson as PM – and even then, it’s simply a reflection of how well Nelson is resonating in his own party and anchored well and truly to the Coalitions vote share.
So moving on from fluff like PPM, let’s look instead at Opposition satisfaction ratings and their relationship to voting intention. If we run a chart the same as above, but this time substitute the Oppositions PPM rating with their satisfaction rating we get (it’s a thumbnail – click it):
As we can see, the relationship isn’t exactly tight between opposition leader satisfaction ratings and the TPP vote difference over the last 12 years, but it’s still statistically significant. The reason for this is pretty simple – new leaders change the satisfaction dynamics in different ways. We can see how that plays out with the following self-explanatory chart (it’s a thumbnail – click on it):
But what is interesting in terms of the relationship between the Opposition leaders performance and the Oppositions vote share is that either Nelson has a higher satisfaction rating than the Coalition vote share would suggest ought to be the case, or alternatively, the Coalition vote share is lower than it should be considering the Opposition leaders current satisfaction rating.
The Newspoll satisfaction ratings come from asking the question:
“ARE YOU SATISFIED OR DISSATISFIED WITH THE WAY [insert Opposition Leaders name] IS DOING HIS JOB AS LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION?
It is specifically a question on the performance of the Leader of the Opposition.
So the satisfaction/voting intention chart is effectively measuring the performance of the Opposition against the performance of the leader of the opposition.
And on this count, Nelson is certainly performing better personally than the Coalition is performing in terms of their vote share, making me question just how much of the Coalitions poor polling performance is actually Nelsons fault, compared to how much of it is a result of the undisciplined rabble rousing that the rest of the front bench and the back bench pork chops have been carrying on with.
Also worth considering is what would happen to the satisfaction ratings and voting intention if the leadership changed. When we look at the ALP experience over the period in the above chart, if Turnbull or someone else were to become leader, would the consequences resemble Crean, Latham or Beazley Mk 2? – with neither 3 being particularly good.
Crean dragged everything down, Latham peaked and then crashed (and I’ve long had this feeling that Malcolm Turnbull as leader would just be Mark Latham in a Fioravanti suit – but minus the suburban mum bounce) and Beazley had a small boost then a larger decline in the satisfaction ratings, but unusually running hand in hand with a small growth in the primary vote support – but essentially nowhere near enough.
Yet whatever happens, whilst we can all navel gaze over whether Nelson is holding back the party vote share and by how much, the historical polling stats suggest that regardless of what Nelson is doing, the party itself is doing even worse and needs to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility for their own failure rather than blaming it all on one person.
But then, considering the historical way that the Coalition treats their leaders – that’s probably asking for too much. For a party that prides itself on waxing lyrical about the importance of personal responsibility being shown by the community, they seem to have distinct aversity to ever taking any themselves.
And on another thing – I am still doing my age attrition model for projecting the vote share hit the Coalition is facing in about ten years – but I stuffed it up and had to start from scratch. But it is coming!