Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

Poll Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clowns

Posted by Possum Comitatus on March 2, 2008

In the lead up to the last election, a period which all seems such a long time ago – there were a number of opinion writers at The Oz whose polling commentary really was in a galaxy far, far away.

The political blogosphere reacted to such arrant nonsense being churned out on a weekly basis by giving the guilty a good clip ‘round the ears and an education in basic statistics. The fallout provided much mirth, not only to the blogospherical participants and readers, but among the journalistic peers of the guilty, lobbyists, parliamentarians, their staff, academics and the broader political insider set generally – the fallout from this little episode culminated in The Oz having a notorious hissyfit in an editorial about how they own Newspoll so the rest of us should just STFU.

It was a memorable, if unedifying spectacle.

This skirmish became known as the Poll Wars, where the first of our contributions here was titled Poll Wars Episode 1:The Phantom Metrics.

A little while ago over in The Oz, our favourite stenographer Dennis Shanahan revived the franchise with a B-grade sequel – a little wet lettuce bitchslap to the bloggers generally, but to this Possum particularly, over Nightwatchman’s single digit preferred PM rating in Newspoll. For those that haven’t yet read it (or have understandably forgotten about it), it’s probably a good idea to go and give it a bit of a squiz. I suggest it works best accompanied with its official soundtrack:

Dennis gets a little frisky over a number of issues in his page 2 column, the first being his opening statement “Where have all the poll pundits and, more particularly, the poll pedants gone?“, suggesting that we just aren’t paying enough attention to him anymore.

While it’s flattering, if a little disturbing, to know that Dennis seeks our eternal attention – I would never dare speak for the other pseph bloggers, but my reasons for not giving three fifths of five eighths of sweet FA’s worth of attention to whatever it is that Dennis is writing these days is pretty simple – the election is over. His type of agenda pollution of the mainstream media coverage of the most prominent and important poll in the country simply no longer has any consequences of any relevance to anyone but Dennis Shanahan.

It was certainly important at the time, but the time for some things eventually passes with history, much like credibility.

After this little piece of introductory attention whoring, the next bit of nonsense worth addressing, and the primary reason why any of it is even on the horizon of this place, is his following quip:

After The Australian put the story, which I wrote, on the front page, it captured public attention and was reported, commented upon and retold in newspapers, radio, television and blogs.

As Possum Comitatus said on Crikey: “While this latest voting intention is hardly newsworthy, even to the poor poll junkies among us, it is the preferred prime minister figure that really grabs the attention.”

Ol’ Possum went on: “While records are meant to be broken, this one was obviously meant to be smashed. Brendan Nelson has stormed into the worst preferred prime minister result in the history of Newspoll with an astonishing 9 per cent.”

So far so good – but it’s at this point where Dennis Shanahan goes troppo, demonstrating that a very little knowledge is indeed a very dangerous thing. He states:

Yet there was one key point missing from all the commentary that has previously cropped up in analysis of Newspolls: in Possum’s words, Nelson “stormed” to his rating by 2 percentage points.

Rudd’s record on preferred PM was also reached by a rise of 2 percentage points.

The margin of error for the Newspoll survey on a sample of 1140 is 3 percentage points. The leaders “stormed” to these records with movements of less than the margin of error.

According to Dennis, what Nelsons Preferred PM rating was in the previous poll is somehow important when comparing the lowest individual scores of Opposition Leaders across a 20 year period. If he believes this to be the case, it really just reinforces why no one seems to pay a great lot of attention to him these days in the blogosphere.

Nelson didn’t “storm” into his dubious distinction of having the lowest ever preferred PM rating in Newspoll history from the last poll, he stormed into this dubious position by simply beating Simon Creans lowest score. He actually did it last month on 11%, but this months 9% just adds another increment to the historical minimum, and single digit figures are really quite a shocker.

This brings us to the most amusing thing about the article – the actual nature of his spiel itself. A well constructed strawman generally requires you to misrepresent the actual nature of an opponents argument into something slightly different, so that you can then proceed to not only burn it down with the fires of rhetoric, but where you can kick the seven shades of shit out of the smouldering embers with a barrage of well organised facts.

While Dennis might do misrepresentation well, his follow up left a bit to be desired.

You might notice in his article that Dennis waves around his “Margin of Error” like a drunken pirate with an acute middle ear infection might wave around a particularly large and cumbersome sabre.

The margin of error as reported from our largest pollsters is predicated on there being an approximate 50/50 split in the poll as the true value. This derives from the way the Standard Error of the poll is calculated via the formula:

Standard Error = se.jpg


Where p is the population proportion we are trying to measure (like the proportion of the population that will vote for the Coalition, or the proportion of the population that prefer Nightwatchman as preferred PM) and n is the number of survey respondents.

In practical terms this means that when polling companies state that their Margin of Error is 3% for polls that measure the Two Party Preferred vote – it’s pretty close to being true as the TPP is usually between 50/50 and 60/40 thereabouts. Hence the value of p (the proportion of people that say they would vote for a given party) for the two party preferred vote is roughly 0.5, or 50%

But when a poll produces results that are way outside of that 50/50 split – like the 9% rating for Brendan Nelson, the statistical value of the margin of error actually reduces the farther away the reported result is from that 50/50 split, and reduces substantially.

By how much?

Well for Nelsons preferred PM result of 9%, we can be generous and say that p = 0.1 (the proportion of the population that prefer Nelson as PM vs. the 0.9 proportion that in some way do not), substitute that value into the equation along with the number of survey respondents in that particular Newspoll (n= 1140), and end up with a Standard Error of 0.889

To change a standard error into a Margin of Error for this poll, we need to build a thing called a 95% confidence interval – the 95% value being what all the pollsters use (which basically says that we can be 95% sure that the true result is within our margin of error). To do this is very easy – we simply multiply the Standard Error of 0.889 by the critical value 1.96 (which is the critical value associated with 95% confidence intervals for these things), multiply the whole thing by 100 to turn it into a percentage and Ta Da!

We have a Margin of Error on the Preferred PM poll of not 3% as Dennis states (because he’s just a goose mindlessly quoting Newspoll figures that he doesn’t actually understand), but a Margin of Error of 1.742%

We could be generously conservative to both Brendan and Dennis here and round it up to a nice 1.8%.

So when Dennis takes the flamethrower to that strawman of his where he invents me talking about Nelson storming from 11% to 9% and says “The leaders “stormed” to these records with movements of less than the margin of error.“, he cant even get the basics right.

If I were saying such a thing, which I’m not and I certainly wasn’t in that article he’s quoting from, in an episode of extreme irony it would still be correct because the exact opposite actually occurred – it was the MoE on that poll result which was actually LESS than the movement that occurred.

Not content with just getting the basics wrong in his piece of self-serving piffle, Dennis also found the need to pontificate about those of us in the blogosphere that actually do have an understanding of the polling statistics that so often confuse Mr Shanahan :

Statistical bloggers forever complain about reports of movements of less than 3per cent and essentially want polls to be banished from newspapers and public debate except during an election.”

“Essentially want polls to be banished” eh?

Put it back in your pants Dennis.

I’ve heard some pretty idiotic things in my life, many from the columns of Mr Shanahan himself – but this one is a cracker.

No Dennis, we don’t want polls banished from public debate – far from it, we just want polling to be reported accurately, a feat which the overwhelming majority of the political journos in this country manage easily and with a high level of professionalism. Some, it would seem, just need excuses instead.


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53 Responses to “Poll Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clowns”

  1. pligg.com said

    Poll Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clowns « Possums Pollytics

    In the lead up to the last election, a period which all seems such a long time ago – there were a number of opinion writers at The Oz whose polling commentary really was in a galaxy far, far away.

    The political blogosphere reacted to such arrant nonse…

  2. […] Shanahan’s column first, then proceed directly to Possum’s […]

  3. Tom said


  4. Stig said

    Heh… I was wondering when you’d get back to Possum Central and fire off the rocket.

    It will give some heart to Dennis though. He and other former members of the JWH cheer squad have been suffering a fairly public and possibly permanent case of relevance deprivation syndrome. Getting a rocket will help him still feel that he’s alive.

    Dennis – if you’re reading this, give it up. It’s 2008, time to move on.

  5. bryce said

    Thanks to Dennis, your blog (and this particular devastating and deserved denunciation) will be much more widely read than ever before.
    More power to you, ‘Ol Possum.

  6. Harry 'Snapper' Organs said

    Sniggle, Possum.

  7. gusface said

    nemesis Says:
    March 3rd, 2008 at 1:15 am
    Everyone (except William)
    as GUSFACE
    i was quite acceptable
    as NEMESIS i am cause for concern

    take a long long long hard look at yourselves


    i sincerely hope that you werent part of the lynch mob at pollbludger

    warmest regards

    please be doubly sure to maintain your independence,come hell or high water

    catch you in the next life my dear friend (wish i could do a tear icon)

  8. George said

    Nicely put Possum 🙂 After that I feel like I should light a cigarette… and I don’t even smoke!

  9. classified said


  10. Detest National Socialists said

    Beautifully put, Possum.

    Shanahan is, of course, an imbecile when it comes to the minutia of statistics and polling methodology, but it is nonetheless very satisfying to see him ride into battle on his high horse, and be so easily dismounted by your good self.

    It escapes me why The Oz have not yet cut him loose, along with the other vestigial irrelevancies currently on their books – Albrechtsen, Shanahan and Sheridan – what a triumvarate of tabloid tedium!

    Let him and his colleagues keep the lies and damn lies, while you go on reporting the statistics.

  11. Rx said

    Rudd’s “honeymoon” over yet, Dennis?

  12. […] Wow. I mean, just wow. Dennis Shanahan really needs to learn to pretend Possum Comitatus et al don’t exist. He’ll at least not leave his guard down throwing haymakers. […]

  13. […] Wired story about Titan Salvage, the smart, brave and somewhat scary guys who salvage ships. And Possums Pollytics’ wonderful response to an attack by The Australian’s Dennis […]

  14. Cat said

    Nelson has been anointed – Nightwatchman. Brave choice Possum – you are going to have to type that every time 🙂 Unless of course your browser has some sort of “auto-text” option. Might be worth investigating.

    Welcome back to the attic Poss – others have referred to a Possum box but I see you as far more likely to be scratching around in some troglodyte’s roof space while he tries to get beauty sleep than sitting in some segregated prefab box.

    On the subject of troglodytes and the Rio Tweed I heard an excerpt of tonight’s 4 Corners where Broadbent was supposedly sobbing (into the lock on the door of the room Joh had barricaded himself into) begging him to give it up as it was all over. Strangely my mind switched to an image of Lord Downer of Baghdad and el Rodente instead.

  15. Bobby said

    Brilliant Possum, just Brilliant – but I am not sure Dennis the menace will understand it – much too logical for him.

  16. Warwick said

    Dennis Shanahan and I have one thing in common I suppose: I don’t understand how to work out a MoE either. I don’t need to though, I just tune in to Possum for that. Dennis should stick with the things he does best – (this is where I was going to name one but..)

  17. paull said

    I didn’t think you would let him get away with it
    I can’t wait for the response

  18. Alastair said

    Excellent work Possum!

  19. Gaffhook said

    Afraid you may have left him floundering on the pub floor with those numbers Poss.
    You need to change the 50/50 to half a glass of whisky in one hand / half a glass in the other….and one ounce from a 10 ounce (hip flask) leaves 9 ounces in the …………………..!!!
    He may comprehend if you write that on a corflute cutout of an MC with a Microphone.

    Top stuff Poss.

  20. 2 tanners said

    The respondents in the OZ didn’t give him much of anything (except stick!) either. One educated him on margins of error, several called him on hypocrisy over his past performance but the cream of the crop was the suggestion that he should have given up while he was behind! 🙂

  21. […] Statistical Blogging Dennis Shanahan has been schooled by Australian psephological blogger Possum Comitatus about the use of basic statistics in polling.  Shanahan famously remarked that he and the others at The Australian understand Newspoll better because they “own it”.  Shanahan is now disputing blogosphere claims that Nelson’s 9% preferred PM rating is a significant figure; he uses the claim that the movement downwards in Nelson’s rating (from 11%) is “less than the margin of error” as evidence that it’s not significant.  Poor old Dennis just can’t get anything right; see here. […]

  22. tigtog said

    Marvellous riposte, Possum. You are the Inigo Montoya of pseph-bloggers.

    “My name is Possum Comitatus! You misrepresented that figure! Prepare to deny!”

  23. Mathew Cole said

    You know Poss, Dennis the Menace will soon be after you with a restraining order at this rate. I’ve seen abusive relationships before, but never this bad – still, at least the baby is getting spanked, so I care little who does it. 🙂

  24. El Nino said

    Things certainly have got a little dull since DS slipped off the radar. Good to hear he is still yodelling in the canyon. Mybe things will spice up when the honeymoon is over…

  25. Possum Comitatus said

    Thanks folks.

    Yes Cat – after a fair bit of pondering I thought “Nightwatchman” was the way to go despite some really witty alternatives. It just came back to what a Nightwatchman is, and how perfectly it describes the number 9% batsman.

    Tigtog – that’s pretty funny, I’ve always had delusions of being a Spanish swordsman! Ole!

    I bet after a few chardonnays (whilst wearing obligatory black skivvy and sinking a few Lattes down at Cafe Elite – of course!) you have everyone rushing to google to decipher your niche metaphors :mrgreen:

  26. Ratsak said

    Someone really needs to tell Dennis to stop leading with his chin.

  27. dawson said

    I recognise ‘The Princess Bride’ reference, Tig, so won’t be joining the stampede.

  28. Kirribilli Removals said

    Let this be a lesson to all: never wave your MoE at the Possum, unless you want it chopped into little pieces and thrown to the fishes.

    Good to see you back Possum, and in such fine form.

  29. Peter said

    All I can say is… that poor kid. If YouTube is still around when they grow up, there’s going to be some serious issues there.

  30. TrueBeliever said

    My one and only defence for Shazza: At least the poor guy is engaging with online media – albeit in a backhanded, defensive fashion. While most print media productions are pretending that cyberspace is for immature (read: non-paper buying) rascals, at least he now and again admits implicitly that there is a body of opinion that exists outside the margins of hard copy print.

    Having got that off my chest: the guy is of course an A-grade fool that should do the decent thing and put himself out to pasture – or at least venture out into the real world to figure out why his fetish object took such a tumble.

  31. Harry 'Snapper' Organs said

    gusface, aka nemesis, go talk to some one you trust. A blog is not a place to spill your guts, either literally or metaphorically. If you don’t have some one, send your contact details to Possum confidentially; Possum can contact me and I’ll try and organise or provide whatever you need. It can be really horrible, particularly if you’re alone, but despite being bastards when it comes to the political toing and froing, we’re all just trying to cope with what life deals us in the end. Seriously. Stick your hand up, if you need a hand.

  32. Harry 'Snapper' Organs said

    Sorry, Poss, last post was possible a bit oblique, but bugger it.

    [Tis OK Snapper – I am more than willing to oblige…. Poss]

  33. George said

    Ladies and gentlemen, the Nightwatchman’s (damn you Possum for choosing such a long name for the Doc!) approval rating is now….. 7% … no error, that’s a SEVEN.

    I have a feeling genital herpes now rates higher….

  34. ViggoP said

    Nightwatchman now Minuteman.

  35. The Doctor said

    I’ve changed my preferred nickname from the Locum to PPM (parts per million).

  36. Warwick said

    Nightwatchman it is then. Good choice. Nightwatchmen usually don’t last long and with his shiny new 7% Newspoll rating I’d suggest that will be the case with this bloke.

  37. Just Me said

    Tigtog, that is pure gold, about as funny as it gets. (Still chuckling several minutes later.)

    And Poss, what can I say… You go from strength to strength. This is one of your wittiest and sharpest, and most relevant analyses yet.

    I almost felt a twinge of sympathy for Ol’ Dennis. Almost. But really, he has nobody but himself to blame. There are good reasons why people shouldn’t comment on technical matters outside their area of competence.

    Take careful note of this little episode, Mr Shanahan, and any others foolish enough to think of practicing his tactics, and learn your lesson well. The era when folk like you can pontificate to the rest of us without serious scrutiny or accountability, is well and truly over. Get used to it, or get out of the game. Rupert Murdoch was right about one thing, when he said that the internet and information age is going to profoundly and permanently change power relationships in this world.

  38. David Richards said

    latest poll results – HAHAHAHAHA
    SS LIbtanic is sinking fast, and Capt. Nellie Pugwash is going down the gurgler even faster

  39. Aspirational Aspirationalist said

    Wonder what’s brought this on…. First Swan now Bligh…….

    I can see the ALP releasing a cover.

    I got into politics, because i got high
    I got to be premier/Treasurer, because i was high
    Because i was high
    Because i was high

    I’m not fussed what they did way back when…… Can we find out who’s on what now. Some of the chaps in canberra have gone to the back of the room and become remarkably inanimate…… One guy even had a bad case of the munchies when out for food when he should have been at work 🙂

  40. paul said

    This was all very amusing, why highlight to the general readership of the australian, the fact that you consistantly throw haymakers at yourself? Poor Dennis, abysmal Janet… I liked it more when they were happy and wrong. Maybe Dennis can get Janet to take you on, and Dennis have a go at Keating, neither can do much worse than the other.

  41. Nexus 6 said

    Possum, Possum….you’ve got it all wrong. In the Dennis reality, it’s OK to add the multitude of other polling errors (non-response etc.) onto the MOE and claim the total as the MOE, hence you’re nicked. He just forgot to mention that in his little rant – but wait, it’ll be there in the next one. Or maybe it’s just that in Dennis world it still is ‘really’ 50%/50%, with the punters just parking their vote – so, again, 3% is fine, as it corrects for the voters being wrong!

  42. David Richards said

    Poss – congrats on the clinical precision of your guided smart bomb in blowing Shamahan’s bunker into a million pieces. These right wing dribbling drivel scribbling purveyors of total goat entrails really are a source of endless wonder.

  43. Enemy Combatant said

    Wonder if The Nightwatchman is aware of parliamentary Workplace Health and Safety Regulations. It’s a jungle out there when the sun goes down. Be such a pity if he stumbled accidentally and fell on his back on a long, sharp, pointed, steely, affixed implement that just happened to be there. Stranger things have occurred, believe it or not and it’s just over a week till the ides of March. Maybe he should start wearing a miner’s head-lighted helmet just in case. Can never be too careful is what I say.

    Shanahan, Henderson, Sheridan, Devine Ms M and Planet Janet, you can shill, but you can’t chide. Retaliation will be swift and merciless. We are going expose your vainglorious souls, poison your neoconservative roots and run your think tanks dry.
    Have a nice day, motherfuckers!

  44. Kirribilli Removals said

    Looks like the cash rate and the good Doctor will pass like ships in the night.

  45. George said

    Hey, Kirribilli Removals, nice comparison. he he 🙂

    I can just see the bank’s going with:

    “Come in and ask us how you can get the Nelson rate without locking your money into a term deposit!”

  46. Ghost of John Hunt is a Coward said

    Brilliant as always Possum.
    Alas I think there is something more happening here than meets the eye. Dennis has a Cunnning Plan to use this strawman attack to generate some, well any controversy to get people talking about him and read his drivel. The poor guy is rightly suffering from irrelevancy and his sad little ego can’t take it no more.

    Does anyone still read .The A*se of the Nation? I used to read some of it before the election but have not been back since. The rightwing ratbag commentariat there are only talking to themselves these days and are completely disconnected from the soul of the nation as opposed to you know… Ever since Caroline Overington got sidelined, they have lost all journalistic credibility…

  47. Just Me said

    Looks like the cash rate and the good Doctor will pass like ships in the night.


  48. David Richards said

    Do the Nelson Poll Limbo
    How low can he go?
    Do the Nelson Poll Limbo
    How low can he go go go go?
    (apologies to G. Macainsh)

    How about a new comp? Who can pick the bottom of the Nightwatchman’s market before he’s delisted?

  49. BlueSkyMining said

    (sorry about the previous typos)

    Ah Possum, we can just “feel the love” when you write about Denis.
    Thanks for sharing it, it made me all warm and fuzzy…. after I stopped laughing so hard.

    Good to see you back on the production line too… really feels like summer is over now and the long winter of (someone elses!) discontent is just beginning. Can’t wait 😀

  50. tigtog said

    I bet after a few chardonnays (whilst wearing obligatory black skivvy and sinking a few Lattes down at Cafe Elite – of course!) you have everyone rushing to google to decipher your niche metaphors

    Pinot Gris, please, darlink!

    Nah, I hang around with a fellow nerds who get the reference immediately and then come up with a better punchline.

  51. Roger said

    Poss – very well understood, dissected and presented – but we all know that the clowns still won’t get it.

    DS is a drone sent into battle by his bosses – who are still fighting the culture wars of the 20th (19th?) century – and poor old DS doesn’t have anywhere near enough options to move elsewhere.

    The truth is that the OZ is in deep doodoo – and needs to create a bit of a diversion from time to time to generate some passing interest in it’s severe agenda.

    It’s a bit of a laugh really. Someone should tell them that their world changed forever on November 24th 2007.

  52. […] job offers (Possum now writes regularly for Crikey), lots of readers and the pleasure of the odd smackdown, but fundamentally they’re working to educate their audience in a pretty specialised branch […]

  53. […] by the likes of Possum Comitatus showed the opposite. Shanahan’s response, of course, was to attack the messenger. This is precisely why I don’t trust The Australian’s political […]

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