Latham's Law - A Punter's Guide to Polling Lingo

Mark Latham helps us to decipher the tricky terminology around the latest polls.

Mark Latham
Thu, 9 Jun, 00:00

As with every election campaign, 2016 has plenty of insiders’ language and confusing claims and counter-claims about the opinion polls.

So let’s sort out what really matters for punters looking for a bit of market value.

What does the terminology mean?

Two-Party Preferred Vote

Australia has a preferential voting system, where voters are expected to number every square for lower house seats.

After minor candidates are eliminated and their preferences allocated, final two candidates remain, with their votes adding up to 100 percent.

Often the media’s reporting of nationwide polls focuses on the two-party preferred (2PP) vote, Labor versus the Coalition. But this can be misleading. The election result is determined in 20-30 key marginal seats, not the nationwide vote for all 150 seats.

A party can win the 2PP (as Labor did in 1998, 1969 and 1961) but still not win enough seats to form government.

Inside the major parties, the campaign experts give far less weight to the 2PP than the media commentators.

In notionally allocating preferences, most polls use the pattern from the last election.

This can also be misleading. For instance, in this campaign one would expect Malcolm Turnbull to attract a higher proportion of Greens preferences for the Liberal Party than Tony Abbott (a figure hated by the Left) in 2013.

The minor parties can also change their preference allocations.

It’s been suggested that in some key seats the Greens might hand out an ‘open ticket’ at polling booths on July 2 – advising their supporters to vote 1 for the Greens but then leaving preference allocations up to each voter (instead of directly preferencing the ALP).

In 2013, the 2PP vote ran 53.5/46.5 to the Coalition.

The newspaper polls indicate the current contest is 50/50 – a notional swing to the ALP of 3.5 percent.

The question for Labor is whether or not the swing is occurring in its safe seats or the key marginals.

Looking at Bill Shorten’s campaign – with its heavy emphasis on education and health spending, higher taxes and attacking big business – I think he’s doing a good job of shoring up the Labor base.

But I doubt he’s making the same inroads with swinging middle class voters in marginal seats.

Primary Vote

This measures the proportion of voters giving their first preference to a particular party.

For Labor and Coalition campaign insiders, the primary vote is often seen as a more reliable measure of their standing than the 2PP.

In 2013, the Coalition received a primary vote of 45.6 percent, Labor 33.4, the Greens 8.7, Clive Palmer 5.5 and others 6.8.

At the midway point of this eight-week campaign, the published polls indicate a LNP primary of 41-42 percent and Labor 35-36 percent.

Ten years ago, the orthodoxy inside the ALP was that the party needed a primary vote "starting with a four" (that is, 40 per cent or above) to win government.

In 2007 Kevin Rudd won comfortably with 43.4 percent.

In 2010, Labor received a primary vote of 38.0 percent and the Coalition 43.6. Neither side could form a majority government, with Julia Gillard hanging on in a hung parliament.

If the polls are right at the moment (and the swing is uniform in all seats), we are headed for another hung parliament.

Labor’s primary is 2-3 points below its 2010 level and the Coalition 1.5-2.5 points below.

These low primary votes point to a good election for third party and independent candidates, especially in the Senate.

Punters should look for surprise lower house victories by third parties and independent candidates.

Betting seat by seat, this is where the best value can be found in this election.

Preferred Prime Minister

These polls are often referred to as "a beauty contest" between the two leaders.

They don’t actually count for much, as the gap between Turnbull (as preferred Prime Minister) and Shorten is not representative of the gap between the major parties.

The media love this poll, as it’s simplistic and highly personalised.

But in determining the election winner, it’s next to useless.

This week’s tips:

Pauline Hanson to be elected to the QLD Senate at $1.52 (LuxBet)

Labor to win the seat of Eden Monaro (NSW) at $1.87 (Sportsbet)

Take the double too at $2.71 (Sportsbet)


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