Opinion polls have dominated this election campaign. In the absence of meaningful debate, discussion and electoral issues, they have become a focus for framing and following the campaign. It's easy for the media and political commentators to put together analysis, stories, and headlines based on the numbers.
In the last 24-hours four major opinion polls have been released. So how much will these polls - and the many preceding them - influence how we vote tomorrow? A Politics graduate student at the University of Otago, Michelle Nicol, has recently carried out research on this question (Do opinion polls influence voters Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). She explains how the publication of these polls can influence voters by causing a bandwagon effect, inducing an underdog effect and encouraging strategic voting.
The 'bandwagon effect' has been important in the buoyancy of National, as well as the continued rise of the Greens. The bandwagon effect is a simple case of 'popularity breeding popularity' - and it's likely that many voters, especially swinging or undecided voters, have chosen to vote National or Green because they wish to be aligned with what is seen to be fashionable and popular - 'jumping on the bandwagon'. Conversely, Labour has been negatively impacted by a 'spiral of silence' in which it has become particularly unfashionable and socially isolating to give a vote to a major party that is obviously so unpopular. Labour has suffered - as have Act and United Future - from 'death by opinion poll'. Low opinion poll results can also result in the 'underdog effect' kicking in and helping a party receive 'the sympathy vote', but such a phenomenon is more likely to apply to minor party such as the Greens or New Zealand First.
The final opinion polls will have a particularly strong effect on voter choice over the next day. National will yet again benefit from the bandwagon effect, as the 50%+ polls suggest to many undecided or wavering voters that 'there must be something right about National if so many other people are going to vote for them'. New Zealand First will certainly benefit from these polls because the party has a range of support of 3.5% to 6.5%. The party is seen to be competitive and the chances of a sub-5% 'wasted vote' has been reduced. The Greens will also get a boost - especially with the Roy Morgan poll giving the party 14.5%. But, perhaps even more importantly, these polls are likely to have a negative impact on voter turnout on Saturday. National voters will be complacent, Labour voters will be demotivated.
One of the dominant themes of the campaign has been the perception of certainty about the result on Saturday. Opinion polls have contributed to this perception -not only because of National's high polling, but also the incredible stability of those results. The volatility normally experienced in an election campaign has been absent. Unsurprisingly, there is a consensus that National will be the government next week. We can see that in the iPredict stock which has a 94% chance of a National Prime Minister, and also the poll out today which shows that 81% of voters believe National will win - see Audrey Young's Key to win despite teatape actions - voters.
Yet on the eve of the real election poll this degree of certainty suddenly appears unfounded. Although the narrative of an expected National Party landslide has always been based on something real - incredibly high opinion poll results - there are a number of factors that give doubt to that certainty. Some very good pieces have been written about this today, the best of which is undoubtedly Audrey Young's Final poll: Nats win looks certain, Winston over 5%. Although Young says a National win 'looks certain', she perceptively notes that there are factors that could complicate this assumed easy victory. Most importantly, that National might win at least 50% of the party vote but not have a majority of the seats in Parliament: 'The reason National could get a majority of party votes tomorrow but not a majority of seats in Parliament is the overhang factor. If today's poll figures were translated to votes, United Future, the Maori Party and Mana would get more electorate seats than their party vote entitlement. When that happens, the size of Parliament expands beyond 120 seats, and the parties are allowed to keep the extra seats. In this case, the "overhang" seats would take Parliament to 126 seats. In that scenario, a Government would need 64 seats for a majority and in today's poll, National would have 63 seats - based on the assumption that Act, Mana, United Future and the Maori Party will keep their electorate seats'.
Other analysis raising doubt about a certain National victory includes Guyon Espiner's Cup of tea for Key in Rodney? and Duncan Garner's Poll shows undecided voters figure leaps up. They both show that Winston Peters might yet be a major fly in the ointment for National's expected trouncing of Labour.
There are a series of possibilities that make National's easy victory less certain, all of them are individually quite possible:
* National doesn't get an outright majority of seats
* Banks loses Epsom, Dunne fails to win Ohariu
* Peters gets over 5%
The likelihood of all of these events occurring is still fairly low, but not so low that they are not worth considering. Of course, the political right is also hammering the line that National sympathizers shouldn't complacently take a victory as certain. What is particularly frustrating for them is the fact that there is still a possibility of failure despite historically high poll ratings.
This all makes Chris Trotter's column today relevant - see: The Winston conundrum. Also, if you're interested in the constitutional details of it all, check out Dean Knight's Governments in transition - some constitutional FAQs.
On election night there will be a wealth of places to follow the results come in. The Herald has outlined the mainstream television options here: TV Pick of the week: Election night specials. More details of TVNZ's coverage can be found here, and on TV3, and Maori TV. And of course all the main radio stations will have coverage too. Think also about using the Listener's Election night sweepstake.
But if you're after an 'intelligent alternative' to these mainstream efforts, check out the 'University of Otago Election Night Special with Dr Bryce Edwards and Professor Andrew Geddis' which will be webcast via the websites of the New Zealand Herald and Otago Daily Times. Together with Prof Geddis, I'll be discussing unfolding events of the evening with guests from across the political spectrum. It will be interactive, fun, irreverent, and just a bit different. The ODT covers what's happening here: Chat about vote to stream out from Dunedin. And Andrew Geddis provides his own irreverent overview of what to expect from our webcast: The revolution WILL be televised!.
Whoever you are watching on election night one thing to be wary of is the analysis of the very early results. TV presenters and commentators grasp for any useful indications, but this often reflects a basic ignorance of how votes are counted and reported. The reality is that the first results in will be ordinary early votes - from people who voted before election day. These are actually a pretty good indicator but they are not a perfect representative sample of the final votes. In the 2008, for example, the change in the party vote from the early votes counted through to the final vote was the following: National +3.6%, Labour -2.4%, Greens -0.6%, Maori Party -0.3%, Act -0.4% and NZ First +0.6%.
After this initial round of pre-election day results, the actual election day results start to dribble in and it is at this point that presenters and commentators inevitably and breathlessly raise the possibility of National getting 60% of the party vote. What is happening, of course, is that in the tiny rural booths where there are 26 votes in total the staff and scrutineers have counted everything three times and reported the results by 7.13pm (before heading off to the pub to try and guess 'who the hell voted for Hone bloody Harawira'). Not surprisingly these early results always favour National. So National always starts out ahead and then the gap closes as the night wears on. The bigger polling places with more votes to count are, unsurprisingly, in the major urban centres and these tend to favour the left more, especially Labour and the Greens.
Political party commentators often are the most accurate predictors early on election night because they know how it works and they have scrutineers in polling places observing the count and reporting the results immediately. Because they know the votes for individual polling places they can compare them to the last election and quickly identify the trends. Even this has limits though. The trends in rural and provincial electorates may be quite different to those in the metropolitian centres. So be very wary of predictions between 7.30pm and 8.30pm.
Other important and interesting items today include: Karl du Fresne's Reflections on a carefully stage-managed campaign, Duncan Garner's ACT toxic, contaminated, diseased, David Farrar's Post-election possibilities, John Armstrong's two items It's put up or shut up time and Should we prepare for the zombie apocalypse, Tracy Watkins's National has little to fear, so why the angst?, Morgan Godfery's two items The smart picks for the Maori electorates and Vote strategically and bring in more Maori MPs, Kate Newton's The power scenarios: which will it be?, Mark Blackham's Refusing to talk, the Dom Post's Election wrap up, It's kind of like a torture, to have to watch the show edition, the Dom Post's Memorable lines and overused soundbites, the Herald's Campaign highs and lows, Stuff's two items Issue by issue, we mark the scorecard and Policies show parties on different hymn sheets, and Tim Watkin's two items The big wheels are turning to National - my last day summary and Marginal machinations: The seats to watch.
Guyon Espiner (TVNZ): Cup of tea for Key in Rodney?
Duncan Garner (TV3): Poll shows undecided voters figure leaps up
Audrey Young (NZH): Final poll: Nats win looks certain, Winston over 5%
Audrey Young (NZH): Key to win despite teatape actions - voters
Patrick Gower (TV3): Not looking good for Epsom's John Banks
Rob Salmond (Pundit): Final Poll of Polls Update
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The summary of the polls
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The election outcome is not settled
Jonathan Chilton-Towle (Oamaru Mail): Man allowed several text votes on TV One Leaders' Debate
Campaign reviews and predictions
Karl du Fresne: Reflections on a carefully stage-managed campaign
John Armstrong (NZH): It's put up or shut up time.
John Armstrong (NZH): Should we prepare for the zombie apocalypse
Duncan Garner (TV3): ACT toxic, contaminated, diseased
Tim Watkin (Pundit): The big wheels are turning to National - my last day summary
Tim Watkin (Pundit): Marginal machinations: The seats to watch
Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On Information Shearing
David Farrar (NZH): Post-election possibilities
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): National has little to fear, so why the angst?
Morgan Godfery (Pundit): The smart picks for the Maori electorates
Morgan Godfery (NZH): Vote strategically and bring in more Maori MPs
Tahu Potiki (Press): Maori Party may be key to next term
Kate Newton (Dom Post): The power scenarios: which will it be?
Dean Knight (Laws179): Governments in transition - some constitutional FAQs
Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Political Report: November 25
Chris Trotter (Dom Post): The Winston conundrum
Nelson Mail: Editorial - Choosing leaders for an uncertain future
Dene Mackenzie (ODT): National victory expected
Dene Mackenzie (ODT): No demand for change in nation's heartland
Mark Blackham (Political Business): Refusing to talk
John Pagani (Stuff): The voters are always right
Dom Post: Memorable lines and overused soundbites
TVNZ/Newstalk ZB: Campaign fails to move voters