Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

The Strengthening of Australian Opinion on Prime Ministers

Posted by Possum Comitatus on August 4, 2008

Wandering through my polling database on the weekend, something really interesting struck me – since the mid 1980’s (when Newspoll first started polling), the electorates’ satisfaction with the Prime Minister of the day has been steadily growing. If we plot every Newspoll as a point, run a Loess regression through it to get a smoothed line of best fit as well as run a linear regression on the Newspoll point data to get a linear trend, we end up with the following fairly self-explanatory chart.

There are 512 Newspoll surveys in that chart, which is a sizeable chunk of info by any yardstick. The increasing trend of the public being satisfied with the PM of the day is pretty clear.

Yet, not only are we becoming more satisfied with our PM, we are also giving the PM of the day higher Preferred Prime Minister ratings over time as well.

The shaded areas in that chart represent the 9 months to each of the elections from 1993, which is worth adding in as it shows just how much trouble Howard was in during the lead up to the 1998, 2001 and 2007 elections. The Howard era also throws up an interesting pattern in the Preferred PM ratings where he generally enjoyed high ratings for 2 years after each election, crashing in the 12 months leading up to the next election before clawing his ratings back to being just above the red line trend immediately before election day.

From the data alone, it was almost as if the Australian public wanted to get rid of him but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it – that is, until 2007 when Howard’s PPM rating clustered solidly way below the red trend line, like it had been threatening to do in so many elections before but where the public had always blinked.

Another interesting little trend that reinforces the strengthening of Australian opinion on Prime Ministers is the proportion of Newspoll respondents that are uncommitted on the Preferred PM question.

Not only are we becoming more satisfied with the actions of our PM of the day over time, not only do we increasingly prefer the incumbent as Prime Minister as time goes by, but we are also, as a political community, becoming increasingly certain of our opinion over which leader would be the best PM.

The big question I suppose is why?

Is it the more presidential style of media relations that’s been happening in our political system, where the Prime Minister becomes a much more highly visible “point man” over the politics of the day for the government and gets a large exposure in the media as a consequence?

Is it a result of the government using more focus group and quantitative political research to better target voters over meta-issues like image and leaders personality traits, effectively managing the soft issues better and better consolidating their popularity as a result?

Is it something to do with the increasing power of incumbency?

Or is it just that we’re all becoming more opinionated?  :mrgreen:    It’s the intertubes watz doin it I tellz ya!

I’d be interested in your thoughts over this as I was quite surprised to see those trends crystalise out so strongly.

Another thing to consider with this, especially in light of the Opposition leadership circus at the moment – will this strengthening of public opinion over the PM make it harder for Oppositions to break through in the future (or even now)? Will the Opposition increasingly need popular and likeable leaders to simply be able to bring the political contest up to the government if this 22 year trend continues?


29 Responses to “The Strengthening of Australian Opinion on Prime Ministers”

  1. Diogenes said

    I suspect it’s due to the increasing ability of incumbents to use the media as a propaganda tool. It’s no coincidence that several of the State leaders used to be journalists, ie Rann and Carpenter. The biggest growth industry in government is in spin doctors and media managers.

  2. onimod said

    Is it that we are becoming more apathetic and less analytically capable?
    Is it just the Hollywood cult of celebrity coming to the fore, where we equate visual media exposure with popularity? (the fact that we can’t get over ‘popular = good’ is a bit of an issue).
    Are we losing that Australian character cynicism and humour?

    As evidence I nominate the gen-Y cult-of-Howard – absolutely baseless as far as I could see, and I don’t think anyone in the LP understood it either, as they’re doing their best to alienate them now.

  3. caf said

    I reckon it’s because as polls themselves have become more embedded in the news cycle and political consciousness, the propensity of people to treat them like barracking for their favourite footy team has increased. If “their man” is PM, they’ll say he’s doing a good job (even if privately they may not think so), so that “their team” gets a good result in the next poll.

  4. caf said

    (My idea is actually testable – see if preferred PM / PM satisfaction is tracking closer to government-party-primary over time?)

  5. Possum Comitatus said

    caf – just had a quick look and the gap between the primary vote and the qualitative metrics aren’t tracking closer through time, the gap between the two actually wanders around all over the place, almost like a random walk.

  6. onimod said

    5 PC
    Wandering gap…which leads back to the already posed theory that personal preference has relatively little to do with actual voting, eh?

    3 Caf
    Barracking – Rudd’s numbers show some people have forgotten to barrack for their own team?

    To add to my previous possibilities – do we now see our leader in a more national or international context, and therefore mark him in that context? I’d suggest the world in general is becoming more nationalistic, and as our last leader showed that’s a pretty easy card to play. That doesn’t explain Rudd though unless you posit that our view is changing.

  7. Xercius said

    I think it’s a manifestation of a combination of things. But, as an underpinning to understanding the operation and affect of that combination, first we have to do some research into electoral behaviour / political socialisation. Ominod (@6) gives the clue with ” . . personal preference has little to do with actual voting.” I have a bit of difficulty with that because, in my view, it’s not about ‘preference’ per se anyway, rather it’s about ‘ideology’.

    Now . . . before we start any further we all have to run out and read Elinor Scarbrough’s 1984 work, ‘Political Ideology and Voting: an Exploratory Study.’ Once we have a handle on that, then we can move on a bit towards the answer.

    Fundamentally, however, the parties have become a lot more adept and (multi)media savvy at both ‘forming’ and ‘shaping’ the ‘ideologies’ possessed by the individuals in society and then using tools like cognative dissonance to reinforce them. Similtaneously, they go to great effort to identify these ‘ideologies’ and then make their policy consonent and cordant to it. Easy really, especially when you have tools like Electrac at your disposal.

    Remember, too, that this is nothing new really. As I told a Federal Member (who, some time back, had endured a boundary review and, hence, had inherited some new constituents, but was anxious as to how he’d be recieved by them); if you ask most Australians to name their local member, only something like 25 percent of them can do so. But, ask the same people if that same local member is doing a good job and about 75 percent of them will unhesitatingly answer, ‘yes!’.

    So I think it’s a complex answer to what might appear an innocuous and simple question. (I’ve given this some thought, however, as it’s along the lines of the PhD I’ll do one day . . . when I feel prepared to enjoy a life of penuary again . . . which could be never).

  8. Lyn said

    I’m thinking visual media. The 80s saw the first wave of post-TV voters. Since then the pre-TV voters have become steadily fewer to be replaced by the post-TV kind.

    Parties and ideologies don’t get TV coverage, individuals do.

  9. Aristotle said

    It highlights the benefit of incumbency, but also that Govts, State and Federal, have become more professional in the way they operate. The public service too, is far more professional than it used to be, which would also impact on the impression of the PM.

    I suspect the impact of ideology is less so than it used to be and so a PM and Govt is less likely to annoy vast numbers of voters.

    The Senate through all that time had the Democrat hand brake operating, with the exception of the last two years, and perhaps their steady hand helped stop the more excessive plans of the various Govts.

  10. Xercius said

    That was certainly part of my considerations, Lyn. But, it’s more than that. It’s the way the medium has been used and the ‘packaging’ of the messages it has been asked to convey.

    You have to remember, too, that the term ‘ideology’ is an often misunderstood one. And I might suggest to you that yes — while parties may not neccessarily get ‘direct’ TV coverage as an indivual might — that ideologies are an omni-present political socialising affect.

    ‘Ideology’, in effect, is a sophisticated terms used by (not just, but perhaps most correctly by) political scientists as a sort of ‘classification’ system. Ideologies do not sit along a continuum somewhere, but exist in a more three dimensional space. It can be demonstrated that practically everyone holds some ideology or ideological artefacts or markers.

    Given, too, that those individuals on the Teev will also be possessed of some form of ideology, it only stands to reason that they will recieve coverage of their actions / deeds / words as befitting that ideology. Consonent dissonace has it’s affect on the viewer and so it goes . . .

  11. JP said

    Well PM satisfaction starts off pretty high in the late 80s, drops to a low in the early 90’s, and has been on the rise ever since. Remind you of anything?

    (Hint: it’s more important to the public than the role of the media)

  12. Xercius said

    Sorry, Aristotle, but I disagree. I think the impact of ideologly is immune to change and might be best thought of an omni-present and / or omnipient. The $64,000-00 question is, however, what form does that (or those) ideology (or ideologies) take as its (their) artefacts in a contemporary society.

  13. calyptorhynchus said

    Surely it’s that both parties are now at ‘the Centre’ (which way to the right of where it was 30 years ago).

    There’s less partisan anger at the Other Party’s leader being in power.

  14. Jeremy Lawson said

    JP doesn’t spell it out, but I’m amazed that nobody has mentioned economic factors!! For a start, there hasn’t been a recession since the early 1990s. Associated with that has been a trend decline in unemployment, an enormous increase in household wealth, and until recently, low and steady inflation. Indeed, it has been the best sustained period of good economic performance since the 1960s. I’m not suggesting that it is the only factor, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t playing a role. Indeed, if we had the data going back further, I would expect that the period from 1973 to 1993 would contain most of the post-war lows in PM satisfaction.

  15. Xercius said

    I think you’re right, Calyptorhynchus . . . to a fair extent at least. What I have been grappling with, however, is the ‘Julius Sumner Miller’ part of that (as in, “Why is it so?”). I mean, even Scarbrough’s study showed — for want of a simplistic descriptor — a ‘bell curve’ of ‘ideological persuasion’ among the electorate.

    What I am interested in is whether there has been any ‘herding’ into the centre of that bell curve; what has done the herding and — perhaps most critically — what does the middle of the bell curve look like now compared to, say, ‘pure’ definitions of liberism / conservatism / socialism and the like and their characteristics of 20 – 40 years ago.

    I wouldn’t be so certain of your assertion, Jeremy, with respect to identifying post-war lows. Certainly, it’s my own reflections that it is in more recent times that there is an increased suspicion, distrust, contempt and disdain for our leaders as distinct from, say, the 70s.

  16. JP said

    Indeed that’s what I was hinting at, Jeremy.

    If you asked: “Would you expect PM satisfaction ratings to correlate well to the health of the economy?” I think everyone would say yes.

    And that’s what I see when I look at that graph. To go looking for media-savviness, or drifts to the centre, or the supposedly newfound cult of celebrity (early Bob Hawke, anyone?) as the defining variable is barking up the wrong tree, for mine. It think all these things count, but as the noise, not the trend.

  17. onimod said

    I agree in principle. So is Rudd defying the trend at this point?

  18. Xercius said

    Irrespective, JP, Jeremy . . . it still doesn’t answer the ‘why’ question at its most distilled (as in why people actually mark up a ballot paper the way they do).

  19. Labor Outsider said

    I agree with you JP – unfortunately, most of the other explanations mentioned on the thread so far are essentially untestable. The political economy literature that I have read suggests that the electorate rewards governments that are in power when the economy performs well. With that in mind it is unsurprising that the state government that is least popular (NSW Labor) is also the one governing the state that has had the worse economic performance in recent years relative to its longer history. Also, does anyone reading this blog think that Bush would be as unpopular as he is if the US hadn’t experienced two recessions under his leadership? Yes, Iraq has been unpopular but it hasn’t been the only factor.

    I submit that next time Australia enters a deep recession, PM satisfaction ratings will plunge accordingly – whether that alters the trend will depend on how long the relative underperformance lasts…

  20. Zaf said

    I’m putting my money on “the government using more focus group and quantitative political research to better target voters over meta-issues like image and leaders personality traits, effectively managing the soft issues better and better consolidating their popularity as a result”.

    I agree that the state of the economy is a big (major? dominant?) factor, but the focus-group-refined interpretation of this to the public is really what feeds into the PM’s popularity. Iow, they know more about us than they used to, and this makes for more effective/efficient spin. Otoh, they know more than they used to about a lot of stuff – maybe they really are doing a better job of running Australia as well?

  21. Labor Outsider said


    Is Rudd defying the trend?

    I think it is reasonable to think voters’ satisfaction with Rudd has peaked….how far it falls will depend on a number of factors including:

    1 – Will the economy merely slow but continue to grow? Or will there be a recession?
    2 – Will voters attribute the weakening to the previous government, the current government, a bit of both or factors external to the political process?
    3 – If the economy does enter recession, will the government be able to satisfy voters that it has a credible plan to make things better?
    4 – Will the PM continue to look good merely by being contrasted with the ineptitude of Nelson or whoever else leads the coalition?

  22. kerneels said

    I wonder to what extent the easier availability of global political and financial news will be affecting the electorate? Online access makes reading European and American news a lot easier, so I expect the performance of our economy relative to other related economies will play a part. If the Australian economy suffers a downturn, does the electorate make a judgement based on our performance relative to other related countries, or based on previous years performance within Australia?

  23. Possum Comitatus said

    The comments are brilliant – this is one of these issues where we will probably never quite get the bottom of and there’s 100 different things that could be all running together to produce the end result, so it’s interesting to see the different perceptions that people are having over it. Good value.

    On the economy – I’m of two minds about how much that’s driving the increase. On the one hand, I completely agree that people enjoy prosperity and are more likely to look favorably on a leader that they think might be delivering it for them, yet on the other hand, that group on non-partisan voters that actually believe that PMs actually deliver such prosperity in the general case is probably not that big – and when balanced against relationships like the infamous IPDI vs ALP Primary Vote:

    ….I wonder if economic prosperity alone would be enough to give us the PM satisfaction strengthening over time?

    Though I reckon that it must, at least in part make a contribution to it.

  24. David Richards said

    Caly – the centre has shifted so far to the right that governments like Fraser’s and Menzies’ are looking more leftist in comparison.

  25. JP said

    Onimod – Is Rudd bucking the trend?

    Not really – the economy is still fine.

    It’s been so long since the economy last tanked that I think people have forgotten what a recession looks like. It really doesn’t look like this.

    But in a sense Rudd was always going to surpass the trend a bit – he was wildly popular even in opposition, he’s delivered some feel-good symbolism, and his government is still new enough to blame any and all bad news on Howard. Hawke (presumably – it’s just off the chart) and Howard spent their honeymoons above the trend, too.

  26. 2 tanners said

    I think everyone is missing Onimod’s point, although i may have misunderstodd it myself.

    Rudd bucked the trend by getting elected in GOOD economic times – according to the economic explanation, he shouldn’t have gotten up in 07, and equally Howard shouldn’t have lost the popular (although not seat) vote in 2001.

  27. Labor Outsider said

    2 Tanners

    The economic explanation is more subtle than that. First, nobody is claiming that all movements in prime ministerial or party support can be explained by economic factors – just that it is consistent with the upward trend in approval for PMs, and part of the cycle in approval.

    Take the 1993 election – it was clear that Keating and the ALP government was on the nose – unemployment was at a post-war high and Keating was personally very unpopular – but the coalition chose that point in time not to run a small-target campaign – but to run on Fightback – which, regardless of its merits – had something for almost everyone to hate. In my view, the size of the ALP loss in 1996 was residual punishment for the pain inflicted earlier, together with the government’s failure to understand that the 1993 win was not an endorsement of them, but a rejection of the opposition.

    Second, I think there were economic factors at play in 2007 – Australians’ debt servicing burden was the highest on record (to that point), interest rates were at a decade high, and underlying inflation (which erodes purchasing power) was also drifting up to a post-1991 recession high. It is also the case that house prices, while surging in more expensive areas of the capital cities, were either flat or falling in many outer suburbs where swinging voters live. In a sense, the economy was too strong and some marginal voters were paying for it.

    Think of it this way – a strong economy (or view that your government is economically competent) is neither a necessary (see 1993) nor sufficient (2007) condition for victory. It is however an important factor.

  28. dylwah said

    I think that the state of the opposition is also important. Bill Haydens period as opposition leader from ’77 to 83 now seems unrealistically long (even tho he only lead the alp to one election). before that, whitlam, calwell and evatt monopolise the alp leadership right back to 1951. 29 years of opposition and four opposition leaders in an orderly fashion.

    contrast that to howards opposition, with four leaders in twelve years with a total dogs breakfast of succession.

    The libs had at least seven changes of leadership ‘tween 83 and 96.

    is this rise an indication from the electorate there is a dissatisfaction with the disorganisation of the opposition and a greater weight given to incumbancy due to that disorganisation?

  29. TERRY EDWARDS said

    There are 2 structural features to the graph of PPM vs time
    1. The linear trend which everyone has commented on, and
    2. What I perceive to be the most interesting feature, as PC has described, namely the slump in Howard’s rating over the first 2 years of each of his governments, followed by the rapid rise to an election winning position.
    Take these in turn.

    Howard’s 1st slump 1996-1998. A modest slump – the electorate was prepared to give him a go (aka the reluctance to toss out a 1st term Govt). The electorate was also prepared to give the GST a go. Also, the ALP campaign was essentially negative, and Beazley & the ALP, while running Howard close, were missing the pizzaz to achieve victory. Finally, don’t forget that Beazley won the popular vote: Howard’s 1st Rabbit out of the hat was to win more seats, despite losing the popular vote. Again this speaks volumes about the ALP campaign, which delivered this Rabbit for JWH.

    After the election, well everyone likes a winner (or at least 55-60% of everyone!!, so a big rise.

    Howard’s 2nd slump: 1998-2000. A sizable slump which should have seen him lose the 2001 election. At the bottom of the slump, the ALP had every expectation of being returned to Government, although again the ALP did not do anything inspiring in this period.

    Howard’s 2nd rise was his 2nd Rabbit out of the hat: the Tampa, and 9/11. Strong on border protection !! and he masterfully wedged the ALP and Beazley. Dark Victory achieved!! After the election, the continuing wedge and continued emphasis on border protection propelled his PPM rating to his highest ever, around 65%. This period coincided with Beazley handing over to Crean, and Beazley/Crean were totally unable to dent Howard’s PPM rating. Indeed, their perceived lack of charisma, regardless of ability, and their acceptance of the refugee wedge, contributed to Howard’s record rating.

    Howard’s 3rd slump was due to the advent, and the curiosity/novelty value, of Latham. But significantly, the slump was not major anf left him just below the (red) trend line.

    Howard’s 3rd rise: Once the election was called, Letham’s brittleness was exposed, and, for instance, Latham’s macho handshake with Howard did not impress. Howard did find another Rabbit in the Hat, namely the bold campaigning around “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low” despite his record of being “mean and tricky” . He was aided also by Latham’s pancreatitis, and by a misjudged ALP forest policy which not only lost Tasmanian seats, but also failed to capture the mainland green vote. Again, a Rabbit of his own and a litter of rabbits given to him by the ALP.

    Of the greatest significance, there was no 4th rise for Howard – his PPM rating was just above the red trend line. This failure to achieve a post election rise was really the indication that Howard was likely to lose the next election.

    Howard’s 4th slump was due to the dramatic arrival of Rudd and the departure of the erstwhile Beazley, which combined with the failure to achieve a post election rise, sealed Howard’s fate.

    And as the Conservatives realized that Howard’s time was up, and they found themselves incapable of tapping JWH on the shoulder, or giving Costello a spine transplant, the PPM ratings were destined to remain in the doldrums at 40%, and as JWH himself commented at the time, there were no more Rabbits in his hat. And this time, the ALP did not donate any rabbits to JWH.

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