02 March 2016
by Edmund Tadros

Essential poll puts Coalition, Labor at 50-50

An Essential poll published on Tuesday is the second survey in two weeks to show Coalition and Labor at 50 per cent each.

The drop in government support comes as the Coalition continues to wage an internal battle over tax reform with former prime minister Tony Abbott calling on Malcolm Turnbull to reject changes to negative gearing and instead cut spending to fund tax cuts.

This result is notable because Essential averages their poll results over two weeks meaning movements usually take a longer time to show up.

Two-party preferred support for Labor is up two points to 50 per cent over the past fortnight, while the Coalition is down two points to 50 per cent, according to Essential.

The jump in support was driven up a three point increase in primary support for Labor, to 38 per cent.

Primary support for the Coalition was down one to 43 per cent, the Greens were steady on 10 per cent and support for other parties and independents was down one point to nine per cent.

If last week's Newspoll (by Galaxy) showing the government deadlocked for the first time under Mr Turnbull caused government members to pay attention, this poll will start to cause panic. 50-50 is no longer a one-off result.

What a poll measures
But does it matter? As the country head towards the chaos of election season, it's important to know how to interpret polls. The first step is to understand what these surveys are actually trying to measure.

​A political poll attempts to gauge the mood of voters at a particular point in time about their party preferences.

Pollsters measure the opinions of a sample of the population and use a concept called margin of error to describe the accuracy of the results.

A poll with a margin of error of 3 per cent means that 95 per cent of the time the actual result will be plus or minus three points from the reported result.

So the Newspoll (by Galaxy) result of 50-50 last Monday really means the two-party preferred support for the Coalition and Labor is somewhere between 47 per cent and 53 per cent. In addition, one time in twenty the actual poll result will be outside of that range.

Thinking about any single one poll result that way, it's hard to get too excited.

But the Essential published on Tuesday is also 50-50. So it's now time to get (a little) stirred. The Newspoll (by Galaxy) and the Essential poll are consistent with a trend across all the other national polls showing support for the government falling since the start of the year.

Three-step guide to polls
Murray Goot, an emeritus professor of politics at Macquarie University who has written extensively on opinion polls, has a simple three-step guide to understanding polls.

"It's a good idea to (a) look at the trends, (b) look at lots of other polls, and (c) remember the two-party preferred polls are all based on preferences at the previous election," he said.

A figure no less than the PM himself provides an excellent example of how to correctly interpret trend poll data.

Last September, Turnbull pointed to a long-term polling trend as part of the reason he wanted to oust Tony Abbott: "The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory. We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott's leadership."

Statistically, Mr Turnbull's reasoning was sound. Thirty consecutive survey results across two polls (the old Newspoll and the new Newspoll run by Galaxy Research) is more than enough data to conclusions about.

Looking at how each new individual poll result compares to other recent polls is also critical.

This can be done easily using The Australian Financial Review's poll of polls interactive graphic of major poll results.

Veteran poll watchers also look for dramatic movements across multiple polls.

Just before Mr Turnbull took over from Mr Abbott as PM, the Coalition had two-party support ranged from 43 per cent to 48 per cent across multiple national polls.

The week after he became PM, the range support for the Coalition had jumped to range of 49 per cent 55 per cent.

Now that's a poll bump.

Primary and two-party preferred polling
A common convention among pollsters is to use the preference flow at the previous election to work ut the two-party preferred result.

Long time poll-watcher Peter Brent suspects the 2013 election preference flows do not reflect electoral reality anymore but that this won't be clear until the election.

In an article for online publication Inside Story, Mr Brent wrote about the unique preference flows of the last election, including "the Palmer United Party, which seemed to come out of nowhere; a low vote for independents; and an overall independent preference flow that favoured Labor."

Fairfax/Ipsos and Roy Morgan also publish a "stated preference" two-party preferred poll based on how voters say they will direct their preferences. Sometimes the two calculations lead to the same result, sometimes it is markedly different.

In any case, Mr Brent is suspicious of how much the polls actually mean between election campaigns.

"It's hypothetical about how you would vote if there was an election," he said.

"It's only during a campaign when the questions asked actually become 'how will you vote?'"