Psephological Prediction

It’s debatable whether psephology is actually a science. Thomas Kuhn would probably have classified it as a pre-science. Nevertheless, the rise of bloggers who are willing and able to use statistical modeling, rather than simply their guts to make predictions is putting psephology on a far more scientific footing.

As it’s the one field where I can make an actual contribution, rather than merely reporting others’ work I thought I’d take a stab at some predictions.I’m not up to prediction the outcome of the 2013 election, but now and then I’m planning to post a few, with explanations. Unlike most commentators I don’t plan to run away if I’m wrong – I’ll revisit and cop the scorn of my tiny number of readers, should that be necessary.

1) The ALP will gain a two party preferred swing to them in WA at the next federal election.

This may seem trivial, but the other half of my prediction – that Labor will suffer big swings in SA and Tasmania at the same election – is right in line with conventional wisdom, and therefore hardly worth reporting. OTOH, this is very much against the commetariate’s view. In their eyes Labor is a basket case. Western Australians are furious about the mining tax, and not particularly concerned about climate change. They will take to Labor with a baseball bat.

Clearly I disagree and here is why: Firstly one needs to note that Labor already did very badly in WA last time. The anger against the mining tax is already inbuilt. One of the oddities of the commetariate is the way they predict swings as a result of factors that were already incorporated into the vote last time. I finally took the plunge and got a betting account when I saw bookmakers offering over $4 on Maxine McKew knocking off John Howard. The arguement, repeated ad nauseum was that Howard’s status as PM would ensure the electorate returned him, even against a national swing. However, Howard had been PM at the previous three elections. That status was already incorporated into his margin, which was wafer slim by that stage.

Back to WA; the second reason people think Labor will do badly there is that they will do badly everywhere – that their current low polling means they are heading for disaster. This has some truth, but I think it’s overstated. Labor’s two party prefered vote is bad, but not exceptional for a government outside its first term. Their primary vote looks shocking, but in compulsory preferential elections, primary vote isn’t that important – it’s what happens after preferences that matter. Much of the loss in Labor’s vote has gone off to “other”, and will probably come back on preferences. That’s not to say they’re traveling well, but there is a difference between bad and diabolical. Moreover, as many have acknowledged, once the carbon and mining taxes are introduced attitudes will change. Whether people end up supporting the taxes or not, almost everyone will see that Abbott’s predictions of doom and disaster were ridiculously hyperbolic.

Finally, long term governments have a way of dragging down their party at the other level of government. This is obvious when they’re as on the nose as NSW Labor was for it’s last four years. However, what most people seem to miss is that state governments can be a problem for their federal counterparts even before they’re in any danger of defeat themselves.

That’s not to say the effect is immediate. Most governments get a honeymoon where they may even boost their colleagues. Almost certainly this is still the case in NSW and Victoria, and it may still have been in WA in 2010. However, by the time they’re into their second term governments have made a few enemies. People are not yet ready to throw them out, particularly if the opposition is hopeless, but they may want to give them a kick. By-elections are one chance to do this, and an election to the other level of government is another. Barnett will have been in power for 5 years by the time of the next federal election, and I think Western Australians will be about ready to give a shove to his Canberra mates.

Whether this will be enough to cost the Liberals any seats remains to be seen.

The point of my prediction is not just to be able to say “I told you so” if I’m right. It’s a demonstration of actually applying a hypothesis to elections and trying to test it. I’m arguing that long term state governments are an important, and neglected, factor in federal results (the reverse is also true). As a result Labor will do badly in SA and Tas, but better than people expect in WA. It would be good to be able to make a wider range of predictions, but alas I can’t. The Liberals in NSW, Vic and their counterparts in Qld, NT and, just possibly ACT, will probably be out of their honeymoons by that stage. OTOH, they may not have been in long enough for their influence to be visible through the noise, so I’m doubtful any real test can occur.

Update: I’ve had three hits on this post in the last week. Clearly I was wrong. Not wildly so, WA has the smallest swing to the coalition of any state (Northern Territory was slightly lower), but wrong. And yes, this casts doubt on the credibility of other predictions I make. I was right about South Australia and Tasmania, but since most people expected that I can’t claim too much credit. I’m planning a longer post that will relate to this, but in the meantime the fact that people were accessing this old post suggested I should acknowledge the failure of my prediction.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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One Response to Psephological Prediction

  1. Pingback: One Term Government? | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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