Financial Review  
 May 3 2003
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Lies and statistics
May 3
Feedback Peter Brent

This week we look to the Newspoll archives for signs of the mid-term slump.

That's the temporary popularity drop supposedly suffered by governments as a matter of routine, the absence of one recently being cited as yet more evidence of Simon Crean's lamentable leadership.

November 2001 was the last election and October 1998 the one before that, so this point last term was early April 2000. Until January that year the Howard government had been ahead in 15 surveys, Beazley's Labor in nine and four rounded to 50/50. (All numbers here are two-party preferred, extrapolated from Newspoll primary votes.)

Early 2000 was not a slump but a turning point; from January until late August 2001 (arrival of Tampa) the opposition won 31 surveys, the government three, with seven draws. (From Tampa to election day the Coalition won all nine.)

Going back one term, from March 1996 to end August 1997, the first Howard government led 34 Newspolls and drew three. Labor hit the front in late October and stayed there for 22 of the next 28 (Coalition four, and two ties).

And in August 1994, Alexander Downer led an opposition with 25 Newspoll wins under its belt, the Keating government had 11, and two were draws. In September Keating took the lead and generally kept it until Howard replaced Downer in January 1995. Howard then consistently led until the March 1996 election.

So to the present. The 17 months to May 2003 have produced 22 opinion poll wins for the government, seven for Labor and four draws. Labor has won none this year.

What does all this tell us? First, no mid-term slumps. In all three recent terms the opposition came from behind around the half-way mark and dominated most of the home stretch. Only one maintained the momentum until polling day. Also, Crean's mid-term tally lies somewhere between Beazley's two.

But the standout of the current term is the close contest and absence of volatility. The largest lead is the current 54 to 46, also taken by Howard post election (as usually happens) and post the Bali bombings. The first two stretches lasted two polls in a row, as has the current one so far.

Compare this to Keating's final term when the Coalition peaked at 60 to 40 and Labor at 57 to 43, or Howard's first one, when he reached 61 to 39 and Beazley 56 to 44. The second Howard government saw both sides take leads of 57 to 43. As well, most surveys since November 2001 have rounded to margins of two points or under - too close to call.

Individual polls throw up exaggerated results. Trends matter. One month of polls in a war does not herald a trend. And mid-term slumps are a thing of the past.

Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au, a website that looks at electoral behaviour.

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