Imagine an election in which one party promises to save the planet and the opposing party pledges to save your job. Which is more likely to get your vote? For most people, those who support families and coach T-Ball on weekends, the answer will not require a lot of soul searching. You may have, for various social reasons, told some pollster that the “Save the Earth” party has your support. But it’s a lot easier to focus on the environment if one can count on a steady income. Consequently, in the end, you’ll vote for the “Paycheck Party.”
This shouldn’t require enormous prescience to predict, yet it consistently surprises the pollsters. The latest election in which they managed to miss the blindingly obvious just took place Down Under between the Labor Party and the conservative Liberal-National coalition. Like Brexit and the 2016 presidential election in the United States, it was a whiff for the pollsters. Labor — which ran on combating climate change, clamping down on fossil fuels, and raising taxes — was the universal favorite. Just before the vote, the Washington Post gleefully reported:
Opinion polls and betting markets predict Australia’s Labor Party, under the leadership of 52-year-old former union head Bill Shorten, will handily defeat the Liberal-National party coalition that has governed the country for five-and-a-half tumultuous years.… The Labor Party wants Australia to generate half its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030, a huge shift for a nation with the world’s fourth-largest coal reserves and the eighth-biggest natural gas industry.
Indeed, the Post went on to predict that a Labor victory in Australia “could provide a morale shot for U.S. Democrats and other left-of-center parties around the world, including the British Labor Party.” The election didn’t boost lefty morale very much, however. The New York Times despondently reported the “unexpected” election results: “It Was Supposed to Be Australia’s Climate Change Election. What Happened?” Even less happy than the editors of the Times were the bookmakers whose confidence in a Labor win was such that they paid off early:
If you think [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison is happy after Saturday’s stunning election victory, consider the punters who walked away with a total of $1.3 million despite backing the wrong team. Sportsbet was so confident in Labor’s chances, as were many pundits, punters and pollsters, it paid out all early bets on Bill Shorten’s team two days before Australians went to the polls.… A Sportsbet statement on Thursday declared punters considered the federal election “run and won.”
So, once again, the obvious question is: “What happened?” Combined with the epic fails associated with Brexit and Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, both of which seriously damaged the credibility of the pollsters, this leaves no way to escape the reality that something is seriously amiss among the “experts.” Getting it wrong is beginning to become a habit with pollsters. Even worse, they seem to always err in the same ideological direction. This pattern shouldn’t be consistently present in a country like Australia, which imposes compulsory voting.
In a country like ours, where voting is voluntary and turnout fluctuates significantly, it’s all too easy to create a polling model that includes inaccurate assumptions. And, for a survey to be statistically valid, it must be based on a random sample. This presents real challenges in a nation whose turnout in presidential elections tends to be about 60 percent of eligible voters. But this shouldn’t present an issue where voting is compulsory. Yet election analyst Kevin Bonham told SBS News that the consistency of Australia’s recent polls is “suspicious”:
It’s like one poll can be three per cent out and that’s what you would sort of expect now and then by random chance. But all the polls being out by that amount in the same direction and getting all the same results is something that absolutely cannot happen by random chance.… It’s absolutely proof of a systematic issue.… If they are doing true random sampling independent of each other, there is no way that they would all get results so close to each other at the same time.
Hilariously, some of the excuses that have been offered are not merely inconsistent with compulsory voting, but suspiciously reminiscent of those made by left-leaning statisticians in the U.S. Some “experts” suggest that the Australian samples contained too many educated people. Sound familiar? As with Brexit and the Trump election, the idea is that “smart” people are over-represented, so naturally they skewed the poll in the “smart” direction. This is what University of Melbourne statistician Adrian Beaumont suggests in The Conversation.
Beaumont claims, without evidence, that educated people are “probably” more likely to respond to surveys. Likewise, he avers that Morrison had a “much better connection to those with a lower degree of educational attainment” than did the leader of the Labor Party. He also fails to provide any objective data to support this assertion. A far more plausible explanation is provided in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Switzer, the Directorof the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. It involves a species of voter similar to the “shy Trump” supporter:
Shy voters now shape Australian politics. During the past three years, television and social-media outlets created a climate of opinion in which it was politically incorrect to oppose identity politics, high taxes, wealth redistribution and costly climate-mitigation policies. In the privacy of the voting booth, “quiet Australians,” as Mr. Morrison calls them, decided that their interests lay in a low-tax and resource-rich market economy.
The possibility that the Australian election would produce a victory for the Liberal-National coalition was missed by the pollsters and the Western media for the same reason they never imagined Trump would win. They don’t understand that, given a choice between expensive utopian schemes and creating an economy that will permit them to provide for their families, most people (including Aussies) will vote for the latter. There’s a message here for the Democrats, if they will listen. If they don’t, they will regret it next year on Election Day.