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Crikey gives the Canberra Times and Noel Towell a well deserved leathering

By johnboy - 31 October 2012 30

This story’s been sent in by Crikey:

The paper, the poll and the almighty ACT stuff-up

CATHY ALEXANDER | OCT 31, 2012 12:28PM

Two days before the ACT election, The Canberra Times splashed with the results of an exclusive opinion poll: “Labor will hold power,” ran the front-page headline.

The Patterson Research poll tipped Labor would coast to victory with the help of the Greens, who would retain their four seats, while the Liberals would make little headway. Previously, some commentators and bloggers had argued it would be a close race as the Liberals gained traction and the Greens struggled. Those forecasts were junked. The poll set the result in stone before ballots were cast on October 20. Sportsbet paid out on a Labor victory?—?the day before the election.

There was just one problem. The poll was wrong.

The Liberals won more votes than Labor; the major parties tied on eight seats apiece. The Greens haemorrhaged votes and lost three of their four seats (see a comparison of the poll with the results here). The parties are now negotiating over who will form government, and while the most likely result is a Labor-Greens alliance there is a chance the Liberals could form a government.

The fiasco of The Canberra Times’ dud poll?—?the sole opinion poll of the campaign, in the territory’s sole daily newspaper?—?raises questions around the national obsession with polls, along with questions on the way they are conducted and reported on. Psephologists are scratching their heads, the ACT Liberals are fuming and The Crimes has gone very quiet.

ABC election analyst Antony Green told Crikey the poll was clearly wrong and pollsters and the paper had “egg on their face”. ”Opinion polls should be published on the astrology page,” said Green (who, it should be noted, reported on the poll on his election blog).

The image below shows The Canberra Times election result prediction on the left (from October 18) and the actual result on the right:

graphic

Some quotes from The Canberra Times on October 18:

    — “The Greens … are expected to garner enough votes to retain their four MLAs” (Assembly reporter Noel Towell)

    — “Today’s result must cast considerable doubt on the strategy and tactics employed by the opposition for the past four years …” (Towell)

    — “Prepared to go with status quo” (headline, editorial)

    — “[Liberal leader Zed Seselja] seems not to have translated to greater support in the electorate … (he) has not resonated with most voters” (editorial)

So what went wrong? The random phone poll of 1203 people was conducted from October 11-14; Patterson says the data was weighted against ABS census figures. The undecided vote was 7-10%, and this was “allocated among parties and candidates using polling formula”.

Keith Patterson, managing director of the Patterson Research Group, toldCrikey: “I can understand the queries about the ACT poll. It certainly raised eyebrows here as well, resulting in something of a witch hunt?—?but nothing was untoward.” Patterson emailed Crikey a Powerpoint on his company which states “Our Record is Pretty Good”.

Sources said that privately, Patterson has been saying he was not sure what went wrong, but had several theories. Some newspaper insiders reckon the Greens had a dud final week in the campaign?—?after the poll was taken.

Crikey phoned The Canberra Times acting editor Grant Newton, who declined to comment. The reporter who wrote the stories, likeable Irishman Noel Towell, referred questions to the editor.

Green was not so reclusive. He says to get the poll that wrong, “you’ve done something wrong methodologically”. The sample size and proportion of uncertain voters seemed workeable, he says, suggesting the problem may be that questions were not asked in a way that reflected the way people actually think in a polling booth.

It may be the poll failed to capture all options on the ballot paper, or named parties rather than individual candidates. Green says the survey results may not have been accurately weighted (i.e. tweaking the results to take into account demographic differences between the surveyed group and the population).

Polling experts told Crikey that Patterson Research may not be seen in the same light as the big players, Newspoll (The Australian) and Nielsen (Fairfax), who poll on politics frequently and agonise over methodology and weighting of results.

Green says the problem is not just the Patterson poll but the way the newspaper wrote it up, gave it prominence and assigned it certainty.

ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja?—?who has been at war with the paper?—?agreed. ”It was obviously spectacularly wrong, as was the analysis that went with it,” he told Crikey. “I’d be fascinated to hear their explanation. It certainly raises questions about The Canberra Times’ credibility … almost all their coverage was designed to steer people away from the Liberal Party.”

Seselja reckons the poll and its coverage may have cost the Liberals votes and sapped momentum from its campaign. But Green says it’s not clear whether a poor poll cost votes because Australians often warmed to the underdog.

What’s Your opinion?


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30 Responses to
Crikey gives the Canberra Times and Noel Towell a well deserved leathering
caf 8:01 pm 31 Oct 12

el said :

Jivrashia said :

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

Agreed. RA readership would have to be getting up to (or even eclipsing?) CT readership by now.

It’s got nothing to do with readership. CT didn’t poll their readers – they commissioned a polling company to poll ACT electors at random. The RiotACT audience, like the audience for any media, is skewed.

el 7:42 pm 31 Oct 12

Jivrashia said :

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

Agreed. RA readership would have to be getting up to (or even eclipsing?) CT readership by now.

caf 7:40 pm 31 Oct 12

Jivrashia said :

The random phone poll of 1203 people sounds significant, but did that cover the ACT demography evenly?

I’m assuming the phone call is to a household during business hours. Well, there’s your problem.

The only people likely to be there are:
– retired people
– stay at home mums and dads with bubs

What the poll showed was how THEY would have voted, but excluded the rest of ACT.

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

The pollsters usually call in the evening. They ask demographic questions so they know if they’re getting a biased sample – there’s a quota for responses from each demographic group, and the overall result is weighted to reflect the demographics of the voting population as a whole.

Polling is at its heart a probabilistic affair. For every poll there’s a chance that random sampling error has thrown your result way out from the true value – for my money the most likely explanation is that Patterson / the CT just got unlucky (it was a so-called “rogue poll”). Such is the risk you run when you commission only one poll in an election campaign! If you run several, chances are they won’t all be outliers.

Gungahlin Al 5:20 pm 31 Oct 12

thehutch said :

It was pretty dumb for the CT to support its poll with so much confidence. Blind freddy knew the Greens would struggle to win 4 seats again.

However, Zed is in LaLa land if he thought the poll cost him votes. It most likely worked the other way.

Pretty close assessment. I think the sheer audacity of the claims, coupled with it being the only “credible” poll done prior to “the only poll that counts”, meant that a lot of otherwise apathetic people were mobilised, or swinging voters re-swung, and I’m sure it actually hurt both ALP and Greens votes. (Not making excuses, just one of a number of factors methinks.)

I also think that a simplistic poll focusing on three parties could never have done justice to such a fragmented voting situation, with the Chic Henry effect, the Val Jeffery/Zed move effect, and the stunning sign wars launched by several Molonglo candidates. Toss in the wrap-up of Greens policy announcements a week out as Paperboy said, and the poll never had a hope of accuracy (despite having lucked it last time – correlation causation again – second time today…).

So yes – the CT headlines seem rather naive. Aided by 20-20 hindsight.
As to whether you park that on Towell’s doorstep or Newton’s, I dunno. Or care.

Jivrashia 5:14 pm 31 Oct 12

The random phone poll of 1203 people sounds significant, but did that cover the ACT demography evenly?

I’m assuming the phone call is to a household during business hours. Well, there’s your problem.

The only people likely to be there are:
– retired people
– stay at home mums and dads with bubs

What the poll showed was how THEY would have voted, but excluded the rest of ACT.

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

thehutch 4:47 pm 31 Oct 12

It was pretty dumb for the CT to support its poll with so much confidence. Blind freddy knew the Greens would struggle to win 4 seats again.

However, Zed is in LaLa land if he thought the poll cost him votes. It most likely worked the other way.

Johnny_Moe 4:36 pm 31 Oct 12

Some pre-election predictions have been pretty spot on though. I predicted I wouldn’t vote and would continue to live a carefree, magical life…. My prediction was right.

Shan12 4:09 pm 31 Oct 12

blub said :

Remember though Alexander used to have Noel Towell’s job as Assembly reporter. Perhaps trashing Towell is just some unnecessary competetive squabbling.

I’m sure there were lots of articles where she was off the mark when she worked at the Crimes.

It’s not unnecessary at all – Noel, and the Canberra Times, really, truly did a terrible job with this one.

astrojax 3:57 pm 31 Oct 12

yebbut, who actually bothers to read the crimes?

paperboy 3:51 pm 31 Oct 12

I’m still trying to find Noel Towell’s “well deserved leathering”. Unless of course “likeable Irishman” counts as some sort of criticism.

Personally I think the much higher than usual margin for error (it was in the order of 5-6%) and the high percentage of undecided votes were factors, along with the Greens campaign falling apart a week before the election.

blub 3:48 pm 31 Oct 12

Remember though Alexander used to have Noel Towell’s job as Assembly reporter. Perhaps trashing Towell is just some unnecessary competetive squabbling.

I’m sure there were lots of articles where she was off the mark when she worked at the Crimes.

pepmeup 3:44 pm 31 Oct 12

Noel Towell also had a ripper article in the Friday 19th Canberra Times that pitted Giulia Jones and Caroline Le Coulter, this one article could well have been responsible for the election of Giulia Jones over other candidates like Elizabeth Lee. Time will show how this works out, im guessing Giulia might just become a frequent flyer here on the Riot Act

colourful sydney rac 3:40 pm 31 Oct 12

Wouldn’t be surprised if the front page splash resulted in a higher vote for the Liberals – people thinking it was safe to give the Govt. a kick.

johnboy 3:35 pm 31 Oct 12

Worth a look at how serious people go about predicting elections.

I’ll also admit I’d almost like to see Zed get up just to recreate this shot.

Shan12 3:34 pm 31 Oct 12

I cant believe more people didn’t make a bigger song and dance out of this. It was just terrible. This is our one newspaper – they should be credible, it was just ridiculous.

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