Ask the punters, they’ll know

Tuesday, 19 June 2007 

For the last couple of months, Mumble has been waging a fairly sensible campaign against commentators who have been touting the betting markets as superior to opinion polls for predicting the coming election. It is not just that the evidence for this proposition appears based on some very thin electoral data but the whole idea that anything is a predictor of an election is highly suspect. Election betting odds reflect nothing more than punters’ guesses as to an election result at any one time and the bookies’ margin, just as the opinion polls are no more than a sample of voting intentions at any one time (and the current fashion for trending opinion polls in a straight line to the election date is just as silly).

Jason Koutsoukis who pushed the betting markets again in Sunday’s Age gave the game away as to what this is about:

The problem with [the last month’s] poll results is that they are ridiculous — no one really believes that’s how people will vote on election day. Talk to any professional pollster who has done work for either of the major parties and they dismiss the published polls as virtually meaningless.

i.e. the published polls have no credibility so the betting markets are a more realistic alternative.

It is hard to think of an electoral cycle where the polls have been so continuously dismissed as this year. Recent government dismissing of the polls is only after the media have been doing the same thing for months. The latest, slightly more sophisticated version is to point at the government’s still strong showing on economic management as indicating that Labor’s lead is soft – as though a minute after answering the question on the economy the punter forgets what they said when asked about voting intention. Koutsoukis’s assertion that even the pollsters are starting to disown them has a ring of truth after the recent extraordinary downplaying by Galaxy principal David Briggs of the findings of his own organization.

Yet ironically it is hard to think when polls have been given such attention and awaited so breathlessly by commentators. This seemingly contradictory treatment of the polls is for the same reason, media pundits are lost as to what is going on. This was no better illustrated than yesterday when political commentators treated the nearly identical polls from Nielsen and Newspoll in totally divergent ways.

The confusion is probably best summed up by Jason Koutsoukis himself who in December, in an uncomfortably personal piece, was writing off Rudd’s chances in this year’s election barely after attaining the leadership and who in February was talking about Rudd being taken apart on the dissecting table by the political geniuses in the Liberal party. Then as little as two weeks ago he was arguing the exact opposite saying that the Liberals should “face reality” and recognise that since Rudd has been leader “Howard has never looked like getting his measure” and that the reported polling numbers, far from being ridiculous, indicate “that disaster is certain”. It is no wonder that commentators like this are relying on the betting punters to tell them who will win the next election. It is probably in line with their prejudices, modest odds on for a Labor win, and besides, their guess is as good as anyone’s – especially commentators who are all at sea. A smart bookie should be able to clean up this year.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 19 June 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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