Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

The Coalitions’ Demographic Train Wreck

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 6, 2008

Back in March over at Australian Policy Online, Ian Watson published a really interesting paper titled “Is demography moving against the Coalition? ”, which was an update of a larger, earlier paper that added new results for the 2007 election period. What Ian Watson did was use Newspoll figures to look at the way different age groups have been changing their voting intention patterns over the period of 1987 through to the present.

What is really interesting about this paper is the dataset it contains at the end – age profile breakdowns on primary voting intention going all the way back to 1987 when Newspoll first started.

It doesn’t take long playing around with the data to realise that, putting it bluntly, the Coalition is facing a demographic train wreck of catastrophic proportions. It isn’t some short term problem that just appeared at the last election and which could easily be dealt with by a bit of vote targeting. Far from it, the impending train wreck is the result of a long slow demographic assault on the Coalitions’ primary vote that has been happening for at least 21 years.

They are losing ground among all age groups under 60, their only strong voting age demographic, the pre-Boomer over 60’s, are declining in number through attrition and will start being replaced by more Labor oriented Boomers over the next decade. As we will see, this pre-boomer demographic is carrying a large weight of the Coalition’s voter support. When that vote becomes neutralised by boomers moving into the 60+ age group, which is expected to occur sometime around 2018-2020, the Coalition primary vote will have lost around 4 to 5 points, perhaps a little more, should prevailing long term trends continue for the next 10-15 years in the same way they’ve played out for the last 21 years.

First up, we’ll just repeat what Ian Watson did and show how various age group voting intentions have been running for the Coalition at each election period since 1987 to give us a bit of a feel for the data. This data is Newspoll data, so the average Coalition primary vote result will be slightly different from the primary vote result that they achieved at each election, simply because of sampling error and late movement, but not by a great deal – it works out as an average of 1.47% mean absolute error.

As there are quite a few age cohorts here, we’ll split the demographics into two groups; the under 40’s and the over 40’s and we’ll also add the average Coalition primary result as well to show which groups are under and over that average.

Notice here that all groups under 40 have had a voting intention less than the average Coalition voting intention for every election since 1987.

Here it starts to get interesting. Up to and including the 1993 election, all groups over the age of 40 supported the Coalition to levels higher than the Coalition average support. But in 1996, the 40-44s were voting under the average, in 1998 the 40-49s were voting under the average, by 2001 it became the 40-54s all voting under the average and by 2007, the 55-59 group was voting just slightly above average but will probably vote below average next election and beyond.

If we play around with the data a bit and subtract the average Coalition primary vote estimate from each age cohorts’ support level for the Coalition, it shows this in starker terms. So, for instance, if the Coalition average was 40% and a particular demographic had only 36% support for the Coalition, they’d get a score of -4.

Again, we’ll do it for both the under 40’s and over 40’s.

From these two charts we can see that it is the over 60’s that are really carrying the weight of Coalition average support here. As the levels of support for the Coalition decline in younger cohorts, it drags down the average Coalition vote, leaving the Coalition more and more reliant on that over 60’s group to shore up their vote. But the problem here is that the over 60’s group is just about to be flooded with Baby Boomers, which will start reducing the Coalition dominance in their most important age cohort.

We can see how this might play out if we use the Newspoll data to track how people born between certain years have behaved over the last 21 years. The problem we have with the data here is that the age groups we’ll track don’t perfectly fit into the age classifications we have – but we can get pretty close on a number of elections. For instance, if we track the 25-29 age bracket from the 1987 election onwards, in the 1993 election that group would be 31-35, but we don’t have that as an available cohort. Yet we do have the 30-34 which is only out by 1 year. At the 1998 election those people were 36-40 years of age, and we can use the 35-39 age cohort for that and so on an so forth.

In the following chart, each age group is only out by a maximum of a year either side of their actual age, so it’s a fairly decent match to give us an idea of how people born in different years have voted over time.

There’s a couple of things to note here. Firstly, I stopped tracking groups when they got into the 60+ age group because it contains too many different ages all bunched together to be useful, so our last age cohort we can use effectively is the 55-59 age bracket. Secondly, you’ll notice a big drop in Coalition support in 1998 by those born between 1938 and 1942. Most of that lost Coalition vote went to One Nation. In 1987 that group voted 7.3% for minor parties and independents, in 1993 it was 6.5%, but in 1998 it was a big 17.3%. In 2001 that vote would have jumped back up to 50+% for the Coalition.

As you can see, those early Boomers born between 1948 and 1952 vote for the Coalition in substantially less numbers than do the older age groups – yet this group has just started to turn 60 this year. By the next election nearly all of that group will be over 60, by the election after that, the 1953-1957 boomers will be starting to turn 60. As time goes on, the Coalitions hold on that over 60 demographic gets further washed out, especially since many of the pre-boomer Coalition supporters in the 60+ group will be increasingly dying out.

If we take these same age groups and do what we did before and measure the difference between the average Coalition vote and the Coalition vote for each age group we get:

We would expect those born between 1938 and 1947 to have increased their “difference from the mean” over the last few elections if we could actually measure it with the Newspoll data, but unfortunately we can’t. However, since that group is reducing in number every year at a faster rate than their younger cohorts, it is slowly allowing the average Coalition vote to fall, and as a result reducing the “difference from the mean” for the younger cohorts.

Looking back over all of the charts, the voters the Coalition are losing aren’t being replaced by younger voters, to the point where it’s reducing the total Coalition primary vote. If the trends that have been happening for the last 21 years continue for the next decade, by 2018 thereabouts, the ALP will simply become unbeatable with TPP results coming in with a an expected demographic floor of around 55%.

(I thought I better bold that point)

So the Coalition has to start appealing to much younger demographics or they will likely find themselves in permanent opposition.

Something for them to keep in mind if they start trying to play political games with the emissions trading system and climate change – issues with large support in the younger demographics.

I’ll do some more with this data later, as well as start applying these results on a seat by seat basis to see which regions face the largest political changes, but I thought you folks might be interested to see how your sub-generation has been voting over the last 21 years or so. I’ll also take a closer look at those born after 1969 in another post.


I’ll stick this chart in here as well since it’s relevant. It’s a basic graphic of the results of the two Newspolls that dealt with climate change and the proposed ETS.

The demographics that the Coalition needs to attract are the ones that have the strongest views on climate change, willingness to pay for it and the benefit of an ETS.

It makes the politicking of the Opposition a hard slog for any long term partisan benefit.

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25 Responses to “The Coalitions’ Demographic Train Wreck”

  1. Clive said

    I couldn’t find any mention of the percentage of the population in each age group. (Maybe it was there, but I didn’t notice it.) In fact, I believe the number of people in the 60+ may greater than in any of the age ranges you mention. This would influence your findings.

    BTW, your statement “Coalition supporters in the 60+ group will be increasingly dying out” saddens me – I’m 75 and hope to see a few more elections 🙂

  2. Jason said

    Good grief! Nice sums Possum, and as you say it’s food for thought for Emo Man as he plays petrol populism.

  3. Bushfire Bill said

    On the face of it a neat summary and an encouraging prediction, but I’ve always been leery of anyone predicting that a particular party could be left in premanent opposition. So many things change. Some get totally upended. I’d be careful of predicting the future based only on the past (and yes I know that’s all you have to go on, but still…).

  4. Hmmm I must be Real Early Boomer then, born mid 1947


  5. follow the preferences said

    It was the 25th anniversity of the Franklin issue and the birth/growth of the Greens. Put the Greens support into these numbers and it all makes sense?

  6. Rx said

    I’ve been waiting for this article, Possum. Thanks! For a long time I have had the impression of the Coalition as consisting of, and governing for, old fogeys. Not that there is anything wrong with being ‘old’ as such, but you know wat I mean.

    Reading about a Coalition in terminal decline is fantastic.

  7. cyclosarin said

    I’m skeptical, Poss. Most people accept that it is common to get more conservative as one gets older. You’re assuming people vote one-way for life.

    What was the saying? If you aren’t a socialist at 20, you have no heart, if you’re still a socialist at 50, you have no brain. I beleive that was a Frenchman who was kicked out of the socialist party for being conservative, after a lifetime in the party (?).

  8. Possum Comitatus said

    It’s a good question Cyclo – do people get more conservative in their voting as they get older?

    The second last chart suggests there’s something to it, but it’s a relatively small growth in the those tracked sub-generations for the coalition, and there’s a fair bit of volatility involved as well. It certainly doesnt seem to make up for falling number of pre-boomers that have higher party identification with the conservtive parties, or if not higher party identification, certainly a greater propensity to vote for the Coalition.

    What we seem to be getting is a situation where there is a small move to the conservative side of politics as people get older, but that small move is coming off a much lower base for the Coalition in age groups under 60 than was the case in the past. So overall, size of the Coalition vote being lost as pre-Boomers wash out of the system looks to be greater than the incremental move to the Coalition that occurs as people get older.

    Whether or not the Coalition can grasp this problem effectively will be up to their political positioning, but I cant see that more of the same in their politics will lead to anything other than more of the same grinding movement away from them in those under 60.

  9. Bushfire Bill said

    George Megalogenis’ article today (Monday the 7th) seems to offer some demographic analysis, too. You wouldn’t call it a disagreement with Possum’s analysis, but certainly an alternative menu, food for contrary thought.

  10. Guise said

    And have you factored in the effects of the weird shit the Young Liberals offer up at regular intervals? If they’re the future of the Liberal Party, I’d like to believe some of these trends will only accelerate over time.

  11. Labor Outsider said

    Interesting post Possum

    One way of framing this debate is to ask: is the current positive correlation between age and coalition support a cohort effect or a true age effect. You argue that it is a cohort effect, and that the coalition will not be able to rely on the votes of boomers as they head into the retirement years.

    While I have some sympathy for this perspective (cohort effects are important) – I also have sympathy for the view that party policy platforms and electoral strategies are endogenous to the views of the electorate. That is, if there is a genuine shift left in the views of the electorate on issues such as climate change due to more conservative cohorts dying, the coalition platform will shift with it.

    Taking a broader perspective, we see the views of the two main parties changing constantly over time. Neither political party now supports the White Australia Policy. During the 1980s and 90s the ALP abandoned the policy of a living wage supported by a high tariff wall. Howard didn’t manage to destroy medicare after 11 years of government. Parties can be demaged for years simply by being associated with recessions that were largely exogenous to their own decisions. The list could go on.

    Even more broadly, issues will arise over the coming decades that we can only dream of now. Which party takes advantage of them will depend on many factors, but I am inherently sceptical of arguments framed in terms of “the coming whichever party ascendancy”.

    Climate change looks like it is working for Labor now, but nobody has had to internalise the cost of the policy yet. Boomers are less conservative than their parents, but their self-interest may result in them demanding health and self-funded-retirement benefit policies even more generous than is currently the case. Which party will manage the inter-generational tensions that may arise?

    Lots to think about…

  12. David Gould said

    My suspicion is that there is a long-term trend only because over the last 30 years the Liberals have managed to get close to the 50 2PP they need to govern targetting the same demographics. Any loss has been marginal to their election chances at worst.

    If this trend continues, however, then they will adjust their policies to match the opinions of the electorate. And they will not need to adjust them by much – just enough to grab a few per cent out of another cohort.

  13. Howard C said

    How on Earth are the Coalition supposed to get more younger voters? It’s an effort for anyone to come out of our education system at say, 22 years of age, without being subjected to everything the left machine can throw at them.

    There needs to be a fundamental approach developed as to how the Coalition will rebuild their support base through younger people.

  14. Possum Comitatus said

    Dont get me wrong Labor Outsider – I’m not into historical determinism either. What this Newspoll data tells me is that if the Coalition keeps doing more of the same, they’ll keep getting more of the same back.

    But the “more of the same” they’ve been doing has been going on for at least 21 years.

    So saying, the pre-Boomers have been boosting the Coalition vote for as long as they’ve been voting, it’s what delivered them government in 1998, 2001 and even 2004. Once that solid group declines in number to the point where the over 60’s start more resembling the voter behaviour of the rest of the country, which will happen in about a decades time, the Coalition will have to reform their political position (of a similar magnitude that the ALP did under Hawke) if they ever want to gain government.

    As Guise mentioned, if you look at the dross coming through the Liberal ranks, it doesnt give me any confidence that they’ll have the capability to undertake that reform any time soon.

  15. Labor Outsider said

    “As Guise mentioned, if you look at the dross coming through the Liberal ranks, it doesnt give me any confidence that they’ll have the capability to undertake that reform any time soon.”

    Have you been to any ALP sub-branch meetings lately? 🙂

    Look, I’m sympathetic your point, but I have quite a lot of faith in the power of incentives. In this case, if the electorate moves, so will the coalition, albeit with a lag. If you find this hard to believe, look at UK politics over the past 30 years. Do you remember the Lab manifesto from the 83 election under Michael Foote? It was a long way from that to New Labor!! Also, witness what Cameron has done for the Tories over the past two years – the Tory platform is considerably different from that which Michael Howard took to the previous election.

    Ideology in politics is important – and coalition members will wrestle with themselves for some time – but eventually the pull of wanting to win will overwhelm all else…If parliamentary members of the ALP left factions are prepared to run around the country calling themselves economic conservatives, then anything is possible!!!

  16. David Gould said


    Is there any way to see if there is any correlation between the government you had as a teenager and the way you tend to vote in the future? Someone was talking to me about teenage rebellion against authority and how often some remnant of this rebellion held over into adulthood. I am not sure that I take this seriously – anecdotally, most of my friends were teenagers under Hawke and we are almost all Labor voters now – but is there a way of easily checking on this hypothesis?

  17. cyclosarin said

    How on Earth are the Coalition supposed to get more younger voters?

    I think you’d be surprised. I think what the Ron Paul crazies showed recently is there’s a good 5 to 15% of young people who are at least receptive to a traditional liberal, small government leave-us-alone message. I think what Poss is getting at is the Liberal Party over the past 20 years haven’t bothered selling that message and have lost that 5 to 15% accordingly.

  18. Possum Comitatus said

    A more difficult proposition for the Coalition would be if their vote in the younger demographics already has that smallish l libertarian group built into it.

    DG, I have seen stuff on that very question only recently somewhere. I’ll have a scoot around today and see if I can find where it was.

  19. Leinad said

    The Ron Paul crazies were a very American thing. We don’t have that tradition of rabid anti-government, tax-protestor movements. Though we might see something like it as part of a backlash against an ETS or the like, down the road.

  20. bryce said

    This trend since 87, however promising for Labor supporters, has had Howard front and centre of Lib policymaking and leadership for all this time. Howard was always seen as having his mind firmly set in glory days past and, with this, very little appeal for younger voters. Howard was certainly a significant factor in this decline and, as Possum shows, these younger voters are getting older.

    Howard is now gone so the predicament for the Libs is not as hopeless as it might seem – but they sure need to start by doing something about the general policy malaise which has hung over them for many years and still lingers since last Nov.

    But the current crop of Lib leadership aspirants (who will try to bring the party forward) includes a few high-order opportunists who arrived (as unconvincing champions of the conservative cause) on the Liberal doorstop presenting themselves as “ready to lead”.But the public aren’t altogether mugs. They can see considerable insincerity on the current Opposition front bench and will continue to mark them down accordingly.

    The Libs WILL eventually bring themselves back into contention and start to have some appeal to the broad middle group again – but the right leader, the right policies and the right attitude isn’t even on the horizon.
    It’s going to be a long night.

  21. M said

    The spectre of the Whitlam experience looms large in this (very good) analysis. Just the mention of his name can still boost the turnover in nursing homes on Sydney’s north shore. People born before, say, 1945 typically had mortgages and kids and bore the brunt of the big 1974 economic bust. Those of us born in the 1950s gained the right to vote (and drink) at 18 instead of 21, had the Vietnam war ended and of course got free university. For many, voting preferences were hardwired for life for reasons quite different to the class and occupation drivers that largely held sway to that point. In the business world the strength of the correlation between age and brand loyalty is well understood but it seems the Libs and Nats are in some denial about it.

    Labor’s problem is that it has gradually outsourced young voter recruitment to the Greens. Longer term, that could have the makings of its own train wreck and perhaps more quickly for ageing state governments increasingly dependent on optional second preferences.

    I’d also like to see some thoughts to immigration levels when looking at the younger age cohorts. Typically they are in their 20s and 30s and the impact of changes in immigration policy should be discernible after allowing for the lags before citizenship and enrolment. While they may be mostly concentrated in a few safe ALP seats, the current record numbers are large enough to make a difference in some scenarios (eg Bennelong).

  22. Aristotle said

    I thought the same in 1972 and 1983, but events proved me wrong. 

    This time, however, climate change is the defining issue of this generation – a bit like the cold war and anti-communism was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and we all know how long one party was in power back then.

  23. Ningaui said

    Statistically, the trends look about right. If so, for Coaloppo careerists, the question becomes: ‘Are there trend breakers on the horizon?’ For the Coaloppo go getters there are several ruinous rays of hope on the political horizon. As the fundies’ small print rightly warns, past performance is no predictor of future performance.

    The Coaloppos have a quite a few deep-seated problems, two of which are quite serious.
    (a) The first is the perception that they will say anything, reverse any position and grab any issue to gain power. This is the opposite to Mr Howard’s greatest political success story, which was convincing the gullibles for quite a long while that he was a conviction politician. Current Coaloppo cynical opportunism is the opposite of conviction politics and is basically unworkable over the long haul.
    (b) The second problem for the Coaloppos is the high degree of consonance between perceptions of their political cynicism and reality.

    The Labgubbies also have some deep-seated problems, three of which are:
    (a) many global systems are close to broken
    (b) there is bugger-all that the Labgubbies can do about it
    (c) the likelihood that they will be blamed for any consequent pain. What did happen to Herbert Hoover and patterns of Republican voting in the thirties and forties, by the way?

    We have a bit of the coyote and the roadrunner type problem here. This is where the coyote runs off the cliff and keeps running for a while before he looks down and it is game over. We have run off the cliff, most of us have an awful feeling that we have done something pretty fundamental, but most of us have yet to look down. The post coyote-lookdown events could well prove trend breakers.

    Any signals of hope for the Coaloppo careerists on disjunct systems behaviour?

    Try the one where, within the space of a year or so, the scientists have brought forward predictions of an ice-free north pole from some time about the end of this century to a fifty/fifty punt for this northern summer.

    And if you think the Murray Darling Basin has water problems, have a good hard look at the water balances for many regions of China. Those Chinese water coyotes are belting full pace for the cliff edge. Five trends are coming together – increased demand, rapid groundwater depletion, rapid reduction of Himalayan glacial meltwater, changes in rainfall patterns and the reduction in the quality of available water because of pollution.

    If I was a betting psephologist I would take anything better than fifty/fifty odds that the voting trends described above will be broken significantly within a generation.

  24. Wombat Steve said


    As per Cyclosarin’s comment at 7 and your response, one question is whether people tend to vote more conservatively as they get older. Assuming they do, your results could just reflect this fact.

    But the real question is whether the cohorts of the 60’s and 70’s are less likely to vote Liberal at all ages compared to earlier generations. To do this, you’d need to compare their voting behaviour at the same ages. That is: how did the pre-Boomers vote at ages 20, 30, 40 and 50, compared to how the Gen X’s are voting at the same ages.

    I don’t know if you’ve the data to answer the question though.

  25. Steve said

    A further complication for the Coalition may be migration patterns of the older generations over time. What are the consequences for the Coalition if we get further concentration of older residents in particular locations (seachangers and treechangers anyone?). Some analysis of trends in population from the Census time-series by electorate (or some of George Megalogenis’ Meganomics tables from the election?), in conjunction with Possum’s trendlines of voting patterns, could be particularly revealing here.

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