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More can be less - Rannís popularity his only weakness

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 6 March 2006

Most Australians completely despise their leaders, but not South Australians. They mightn’t love them, but they’ll give them a pat in passing. Mike Rann and Rob Kerin are two blokes who are seen as decent, even honest. One is a capable leader, while the other is just too “nice”. As a result, if nothing changes between now and election day, Mike Rann is heading towards a “Rannslide”. The only thing that might prevent this is an almost unanimous belief that large margins make for unaccountable government.

These are some of the early conclusions from our research into the South Australian poll using online qualitative questionnaires and focus groups. As yet our data base is small - 142 responses to the online questionnaire and one focus group of 6 people - but qualitative analysis does not depend on large samples answering a small number of questions. It uses smaller samples and asks more detailed, open-ended questions. While quantitative research tries to measure how many people are doing what, “qual” looks for insight and motive. “Quants” give hindsight and “Qual” gives foresight.

This is the seventh election that we have covered in this way, and our success rate of predictions has been very high. This is not just due to the qualitative method, but to the fact that we use campaign professionals to design the questionnaires and conduct the focus groups, all the time asking the question “If I were running that campaign, what would I be doing and thinking”.


Rann’s campaign team is in a fortunate position. Its candidate has done so well over the last term of parliament that voters can’t think of anyone they would rather vote for. Here’s a sample of comments about Rann: “ability to relate to the common man”, “a nice person to speak to”, “genuinely interested”, “energetic, visionary, polished”. His one negative is that he is seen as being too presidential and media savvy, but it’s also a positive because it makes him mongrel enough to deal with his own party - South Australians don’t like political parties.

And the view of Kerin? Well, normally voters cite negative qualities as a reason for not voting for a particular politician, but in Kerin’s case it is his good qualities that are his negative. “Well, to use the old cliche, he's a 'good bloke', he goes to Mass, and he is the result of a deal between the factions.” “Very decent bloke but not dynamic enough and not ruthless enough to keep a party together.” “I have dealt with him and was most impressed, but he really does not have the presence to lead the Libs. He knew the issues we went in to discuss and came across as very genuine.” He’s too nice for the business of politics, and they’re worried about his party as well.

Normally elections are not popularity contests. Even well-liked leaders are vulnerable to issues, and even the ugliest opposition leader can leverage relevance from them, but in this election there is not one single issue that stands out for voters, and few that arise above background static. When pressed they nominate health and education, and maybe the economy, but none of these appears to be a potential vote changer.

One issue that so far has been a negative according to our respondents is law and order. Ten years ago “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” was a sure-fire vote winner. Nowadays voters are jaded as tougher laws have not made them feel any safer, and they are looking for more nuanced approaches. For example, one voter wanted to know whether it would give a better law and order outcome to employ an extra 400 police, or 400 teachers.

So, the only thing really at issue in this election would appear to be the size of Rann’s winning margin, or put from the other direction, how badly the Liberal Party will be mauled. If Rann runs a positive campaign, keeps himself in front of the cameras, and makes modest and achievable promises, it will be huge. If he goes negative on the Liberals, or voters start to think about just how large the margin will be, then he will be cut back down to size, but should still win handsomely. For me, the real interest from a campaign perspective will be whether the Liberals grasp this and shift their campaign appeal from personalities and policies, to an appeal for a tactical vote.

There is only one thing at issue in this campaign - the size of Rann’s margin - that’s the thing to campaign on.

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First published in the Independent Weekly on March 5, 2006.

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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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South Australian election
South Australian election - questionnaire

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