Is John Key such an inspirational leader that he deserves to enjoy the support of 57% of New Zealand voters? Is Phil Goff such a hopeless leader that he deserves the support of only 8% of New Zealand voters? Has the National Party’s record in office been so impressive that it deserves to enjoy the support of 56% of New Zealand voters, including one might surmise, a significant number of Labour defectors? And has the Labour opposition been so feeble that it deserves the support of only 30% of New Zealand voters? Well, if the polls are right – and there is no great difference between one and another – then the answer to all of these questions would seem to be Yes. But are they right? The extremity of their findings – the adulation of John Key and the seeming invisibility of Phil Goff; National having twice as much support as Labour – seems curious, given the parlous state of the economy, the high level of unemployment and the near-Third-World conditions in which so many of our citizens, both adults and children, are currently living.
As a nation we seem to have closed our eyes to these realities, so dazzled are we by the luminance of the Prime Minister. The mirror image of ourselves as a people which the polls present seems to me less than flattering. Are we really a nation more impressed by style than substance? Are we really that shallow? It seems that we are. It surely can be no coincidence that Key’s rating as ‘preferred Prime Minister’ is virtually identical to National’s rating as preferred party to govern. In the minds of Key’s supporters, leader and party are one and indivisible. Attacking the messenger is never a good look, and arguing that the polls may be wrong invariably suggests sour grapes. But a couple of things are at least worth noting. The good or bad news which the polls bring each month reflects the answers given by around 1,000 people to questions put to them by professional pollsters. The so-called ‘margin of error’ is a little over 3%. Statistically speaking, the polls should be reasonably accurate.
However, a problem arises from the fact that the information is gathered exclusively by landline. This creates a bias in the poll results, since people on lower incomes – the non-working, working and lower-middle classes – tend not to have landlines, relying instead on (frequently pre-paid) mobile phones. The same is true of students and younger people in general. You can’t text on a landline. The pollsters are of course aware of this and use a statistical formula to correct the imbalance. But they still don’t know how the people without landlines would have ‘voted’, had they been given the chance. The exclusion of a significant segment of the voting population, a segment more likely to be sympathetic to the Left, must surely be a relevant factor in judging the reliability of political opinion polls. More important than this (to me) is the effect on voter perception and decision-making of the polls themselves. If you are constantly being told that scientific polling shows that X has no chance of winning and Y has no chance of losing, your inclination to vote for X will diminish and your inclination to vote for Y increase.
That is simply human nature. People like to back winners. And they don’t want to waste their vote on a certain loser. For months now the pollsters and their media messengers – most prominently (since they are on television) the political soothsaying duo of Garner and Espiner – have been telling us, with a degree of schadenfreude bordering on glee, that Goff and Labour are toast. It seems naive in the extreme to believe that this has no effect on voting preference. The polls, in a word, have a built-in tendency to be self-fulfilling. This might be of less significance – and the results might be slightly or even significantly different – if political issues were discursively debated on prime-time television. They aren’t. There is no programme on prime-time television devoted to the analysis of political issues. This reflects, and has for decades reflected television executives’ belief that politics are boring and of little interest to the prime-time viewer.
Hence the marginalisation of political debate to Saturday and Sunday morning. Q & A and The Nation are both good programmes, but their audiences are, of necessity, small in comparison to programmes broadcast in the evening. This absence of informed, in depth, prime-time television debate of political issues serves to favour and encourage political judgements made on the basis of on-screen personality or facility with the medium rather than on the basis of policy or the national interest. What the politician says or believes is of less importance than how he or she comes across. As a long-time media advisor to the political Left, I am of course complicit in all of this. But this does not prevent me from bemoaning the failure of the television networks to meet what I consider their obligation (certainly Television New Zealand’s obligation) in a democracy to foster and promote political literacy among their viewers. Politics has been reduced in prime time to the level of a beauty contest in which the contestants’ attractiveness is the main criterion for winning the judges’ approval.
It is his superiority on the political catwalk, combined with the near-total absence of discursive political debate on television that accounts in large part for John Key’s dominance in the polls. No New Zealand politician has ever had a better understanding of the power of celebrity, of the role of the photo-opportunity in generating and maintaining public approval, of the infectious nature of proximity to the rich, famous and powerful. The adjective most commonly used to describe Key is ‘nice’, closely followed by ‘easy’’. His opponents like to dub him ‘Smile And Wave’, perhaps not realising the power of smiling and waving. One could be amused by all of this if it were part of a wider and deeper political discourse, but it seems to have replaced political discourse entirely. In a curiously circular logic our political leaders are judged not on the basis of the merits or lack of merits of their stewardship or policies but on their ratings in the polls. John Key is a superb leader because he is on 56% in the preferred Prime Minister polls; Phil Goff is a hopeless leader because he is on 8% in the polls. It thus becomes virtually impossible for a low-polling leader to improve his or her rating, since it is the rating itself that is the gauge of political ability.
If I had any doubts about the merits of this argument they were utterly dispelled by Duncan Garner. Sunday’s 3 News Reid Research poll had brought as little comfort to Labour and its leader as the One News Colmar Brunton Poll on the same night. But on Monday TV3’s political editor had a few more rabbits to pull out of the hat: Fewer than two in every 10 people think Phil Goff can win the next election, according to our latest 3 News Reid Research poll. And it is not much better if you ask just Labour voters. One in three Labour voters now thinks it is time for Mr Goff to stand aside as leader of the party. In our latest 3 News Reid Research poll 78% of voters said he cannot win. Just 16% said he can. But it is not much better amongst his own believers – more than one in two Labour voters have lost the faith. 56% say he cannot win and just 37% of his own voters say he can. Labour is trailing National by 25 points in our latest poll, and Mr Goff is on track for a humiliating defeat. So we asked Labour voters, should Mr Goff be dumped as Labour’s leader. 30% say yes get rid of him – that is one in three of his own voters. 65% say leave him there. 5% did not know.
One senior Labour MP told 3 News today the latest polls are “depressing and it’s dead man’s territory”. Now here’s an interesting question for Mr Garner: If John Key is on 56% in the preferred Prime Minister polls and Phil Goff is on 8%, what precisely could you expect to learn by asking the same respondents whether they think Goff can win the election? I’ll help you with the answer, Duncan – Absolutely nothing! An even more interesting question might be: Why bother including a question to which anyone who knows that 56 is 7 times 8 already knows the answer? On current polling the odds against Goff winning the election are huge. Here’s one more for you: Would a poll result stating that ‘fewer than two in every 10 people think Phil Goff can win the next election be helpful or unhelpful to Goff’s chances of actually winning the election? It’s a rhetorical question, Duncan, so I’ll ask another one: Could anything be more damaging to Goff’s chances of actually winning the next election? Well, maybe if a majority of Labour voters thought Goff had no chance of winning. And, shiver me timbers, by a slim majority, your poll showed that too.
On a roll here, me old mate. Might as well go for the biggie and ask those Labour voters whether they think Goff should be dumped as party leader? Not quite so conclusive this time: 30% which, as you helpfully reminded us, is one in three, said Yes, while 65%, which you forgot to remind us, is two out of three, said No. So what we had here was a poll about voters reactions to the polls. My problem with it is that I find it hard to believe it was neutral in its intention. Given the sheer predictability of its outcome – a double whammy whose effect could only be to further damage Goff’s electoral chances – it was gratuitous at best. In effectively asking respondents to predict the outcome of the election by interpreting the meaning of previous polls, rather than simply stating their own voting preferences, it was also of dubious value as a piece of research. Still, as I said earlier, complaining about the polls is not a good look. But it would be helpful if the delivery and analysis of poll results was not television’s main contribution to prime-time political coverage, and debate of the political issues confronting our society was.