Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Polls: the story between the lines

We’ve seen plenty of news in recent times that PM John Howard has been overtaken by opposition leader Kevin Rudd in the opinion polls.

The latest, from Newspoll, puts Rudd 10 points ahead of Howard in the crucial ‘preferred Prime Minister’ question. This in an election year (due around October).

That in itself is not necessarily decisive. In 2004, Mark Latham was similarly ahead of Howard, before plunging in the only poll that mattered. Rudd’s numbers are significantly ahead of where Latham was – but that’s no indicator either.

Betting is often said to be a more reliable indicator than polling. That a collation of five betting sources places Rudd ahead of Howard speaks volumes.

(You can read all about the betting – and polling - on an excellent psephological site, The http://www.ozpolitics.info/blog/. Look for the charts specifically.)

Yet there’s a couple of very interesting points from that poll that commentators didn’t pick up on.

First, preference for Howard shot down in December, just as soon as Rudd replaced Beazley. That strongly suggests that many people were seeking any viable alternative to Howard (and Beazley wasn’t it). At first, a large number were uncommitted. But that number slowly shifted all the way to Rudd.

So, contrary to conventional wisdom that Oppositions don’t win elections (Governments just lose them), a) Howard is losing it, and b) Rudd is actually winning it.

Second, in a week of verbal sparring, where sentiment could have gone either way, numbers for Rudd shot up. Which suggests that it’s not the message that’s key, it’s the messenger. And people have decided which messenger they favour.

Eight months is still a very long time in politics. But Rudd has provided a very intelligent, witty counterpoint to Howard, while maintaining a conservative demeanour. And barring a debacle worse than the ‘children overboard’ rort of 2004, Rudd only has to stand his ground to win.

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