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Beazley can't crow too loud about the Aston by-election result

By Graham Young - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001


The vote in the Aston by-election was a neutral thing. On its own it was well within the margins of what is usual in a by-election. That can probably be put down to the fact that it was one of those rarest of occurrences – a by-election caused by a death. Where a by-election is caused by a resignation, voters will often vote against the party of their previous member to show how much they resent being jilted. That was not a problem for Howard in Aston. It might have been a problem losing Peter Nugent’s personal vote but that would have been countered by the presence of a sympathy vote and the fact that the Liberal candidate seemed superior to the Labor one. In the circumstances a swing of around 4.2% is probably a tie. It does not signify an Opposition looking at a landslide victory later this year, nor does it portend a Government being pushed inexorably into a third term of government.

But if the by-election itself was neutral between the parties, the Liberals’ superior handling of the result has made it positive for them in the longer-term. In fact, if Beazley loses the next election it may well be because of what he said after the Aston by-election. His expectations management has been woeful.

Expectations management is the attempt to influence the public’s belief as to who will win an election so as to increase your vote. People have an increased tendency to vote one way or the other, depending on what they think is going to happen in an election. This tendency is heightened by the current style of political reporting that analyses elections as contests between two teams of players rather than as a contest between ideas as it makes changing your vote seem less important.

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Expectations are difficult to work with. People’s reactions tend to be cultural and situational, and their expectations are not always rational. In the Australian cultural context it is best to play down one’s chances of success. As a national group we do not like "tall poppies" and people who are "up themselves". Those who say they are going to win elections are both of those things, making them less electable. That is why politicians manoeuvre for what journalists call "underdog status".

But it is not as simple as that. While Australians don’t like "bigheads", they are also not going to waste their time on someone who has no chance of winning at all. Someone who is beaten before they even pull the lineament out of the drawer. Winning politicians need to convey the idea that they are down, but not that they are out.

Expectations management in electorates with a large ethnic component is more difficult. Some ethnic groups like to back winners. They are not interested in underdogs and so campaigns in these electorates have to deliver mixed messages. Roughly 18.2% of Aston voters speak a language other than English at home, a complicating factor during the campaign, but not after.

Ethnic voters are not the only ones who react poorly to underdog status – so do financial supporters and branch members. The thought that a candidate might lose is not a strong inducement to devote time and money to their campaign. Likewise, a parliamentary leader who told his team that they were going to lose might find himself facing a mutiny engineered by someone with more confidence.

But the "underdog" phenomenon is much more than just a dislike of someone who is over-confident – it is part of a genuine desire to keep things even. In federal elections it is unusual for any party to win by large margins. Since 1948 there have been 21 federal elections but in only seven of them has the winning party’s two-party preferred vote exceeded 53%. This indicates a distrust of large majorities (which also manifests itself in contrary voting patterns in the Senate) and feelings of sympathy for the party coming second. It also includes the fact that if your own supporters think you are going to win they are less likely to turn out and vote for you.

In making judgements as to whom to support voters don’t just listen to what politicians say. They also take notice of election results and public opinion polls. Polls have an interesting effect on voting intentions because they are woven into the melody of voting intentions, often playing a counterpoint. If a poll predicts a landslide, significant numbers of voters will change their vote to counteract it. Previous election results can also play an even stronger role in this way. In the 1996 election, despite opinion polls that said Keating would lose, there was still a strong public perception that he would win, because he had won the "unloseable" election in 1993.

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Claiming that the next election will be hard to win also accords with the volatility of the electorate. A look at any time series of opinion polls will generally show voting intentions moving around overnight, sometimes by as much as four or five percent. Given that most elections are won by margins of less than this, predictions of political success can easily turn out to be wrong because of some unforeseeable volatility that occurs at the last moment.

The result of these various factors is that it is always best for political leaders to claim that it will be difficult for them to win the next election. It makes them look humble (and humility is an attractive and rare character trait in most politicians) and truthful, while probably being an accurate assessment of their real position. But it upsets the groupies, who want to hear that you are going to win and it can also play a tin note with ethnic minorities. The best line is therefore to claim that you are no certainty to win, but that you are definitely in with a chance. That is the line that the Howard team has competently been pushing through a variety of spokespeople.

But what has Beazley been saying? Incredibly he has been claiming that Aston will deliver him government at the end of the year in a landslide with a majority as high as 30 seats. Please! Even if there were polls showing that, Aston isn’t one of them, and if there were, given the need to manage expectations, any smart politician who wanted to look humble, truthful, and to get the vote out on the day, would keep his mouth firmly closed about them.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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