Monday, May 28, 2007

The numbers game

All politics is a numbers game. In all democracies it’s about politicians first counting the numbers to see if they’ll be elected then, if they are, it’s counting numbers to see if they can do what they want by gaining support from other politicians.

Along the way, the power of the opinion poll is supreme. Never mind that some polls are totally worthless, and ignore the fact that even the best poll is merely a snapshot of a single moment in time, a moment that will have passed before the poll results are released. To all of us, and especially the news media, polls become some sort of final decider of what or who is in or out.

A new poll from TVNZ’s One News and Colmar Brunton showed the centre-right National Party, currently the Opposition, 25 points ahead of the Labour Party, currently leading the Government. I won’t even bother talking about the “beauty contest” poll about “preferred prime minister” (because, as I’ve said before, it’s meaningless when we don’t elect the Prime Minister directly), but it showed Opposition Leader John Key ahead of Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The next election is more than a year from now, so the current ratings don’t mean a whole lot. Most political analysts would agree with that assessment, but would add that the overall trend is what matters, and in
New Zealand, the trend has been against Labour lately. Recent evidence has shown that to be an unreliable indicator.

In the last NZ election campaign in 2005, the polls had Labour way out in front at first, but then the polling trend showed National pulling ahead. National lost that election. In the 2004 US presidential election, the polling trends pointed toward a victory by John Kerry, but that didn’t happen. So, observing trends doesn’t tell us anything much, either. The only way to truly gage public opinion is by holding an election, something polling companies themselves would surely admit.

So, while the current polling isn’t favourable toward Labour, that’s not the end of the story. It’s a long time until the next election, and anything could happen. In the meantime, though, it’s impossible to talk about politics without mentioning polls, and it’s obviously impossible for me avoid talking about politics. In my case though, it’s more about analysis than hysterics over poll data, more about commentary than the numbers game.

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