Making sense of the polls

Making sense of the polls

International Electoral Events

There are some interesting international electoral events happening now. On 12 September, the UK Labour party will announce its new leader, and the most left wing candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, is expected to win. A Greek election will be held on the 20 September, with polls showing the governing SYRIZA is just ahead of the conservative New Democrats. The Canadian election will be held on the 19 October, with the Tories likely to lose government. Finally, Donald Trump currently has a big poll lead, but can he win the 2016 US Republican Presidential nomination?

I will discuss all these events below in chronological order.

UK Labour leadership election: result to be announced 12 September

On the day after the demoralising Labour loss at the 7 May 2015 UK election, Labour leader Ed Miliband announced his resignation. There are four candidates running for the Labour leadership: Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn. The first three candidates are from the centre left, but Corbyn represents the hard left of the party.

Under voting system reforms, the parliamentary Labour party has no extra weighting in the election; instead, party members, affiliated unionists and those who paid 3 UK pounds (about $A6) to become registered supporters all have an equal say in this leadership election. Voting is by post, and takes place over the month prior to the announcement on 12 September. Australian style preferential voting is used for this election.

A YouGov poll of 1400 voters who are eligible to vote in this election (a small subset of the overall UK population), taken 6-10 August, has Corbyn on a crushing 53% of the primary vote, compared to 21% for Burnham, 18% for Cooper and 8% for Kendall. A two candidate preferred figure was provided for Corbyn vs Burnham and Corbyn vs Cooper, and Corbyn defeats both by over 60-40. There is no evidence that Corbyn’s lead has eroded since this poll was taken over three weeks ago.

Many Labour voters thought that Tony Blair was too close to the Tories, and he became very unpopular with the Left over the Iraq war. Labour members also became frustrated that Labour has not opposed some Tory policies in opposition. However, Blair won three elections, and is easily the most electorally successful UK Labour leader.

In my opinion, a Corbyn leadership would be an electoral disaster for Labour. This is not because I think he is too left wing for the average voter, but because Labour would be perceived as lacking economic credibility under his leadership.

Greek election: 20 September

In January, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) won office in Greece on a promise to ease austerity. However, SYRIZA was eventually forced to back further austerity to prevent Greece from crashing out of the Eurozone. Voting on bills that required greater austerity created divisions within SYRIZA, and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was forced to rely on opposition votes to pass these bills. In late August, Tsipras announced the resignation of his government, and new elections will be held on the 20 September.

The Greek Parliament has 300 members. 250 of these members are assigned by proportional representation with a minimum 3% needed to qualify, and 50 seats are awarded en masse to the party that wins more votes than any other party.

SYRIZA’s polling has declined from the low 40’s before the election was called to the high 20’s/low 30’s, and a recent poll gives the conservative New Democrats a 0.3% lead. However, even with the 50-seat bonus, whoever wins is unlikely to be able to form a majority government. I think a New Democrat victory would be more likely to lead to stable government, as they would be able to ally with the pro-European Potami and the former left of centre major party PASOK.

Canadian election: 19 October

The Canadian election is of some interest to Australians because Conservative PM Stephen Harper is one of Abbott’s few international allies on climate change policies.

For most of its history, Canada has either been governed by the Conservatives or the centre left Liberals (this is confusing for Australians). Because of the presence of third parties such as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Quebec Bloc, minority governments have been common. The NDP is a pro-labour party that is to the left of the Liberals, and the Quebec Bloc is a separatist party.

Canada uses the simple first past the post system, where the candidate with more votes in a seat than any other candidate wins the seat. At this election, there will be a total of 338 seats, up from 308 in 2011.

At the 2011 election, the Conservatives won a majority after having formed a minority government since 2006. The overall vote shares were 39.6% for the Tories, 30.6% for the NDP, 18.9% for the Liberals, 6.0% for the Quebec Bloc and 3.9% for the Greens. The Tories benefited from vote splitting between left wing alternatives, winning 166 of the 308 seats, to 103 for the NDP, 34 for the Liberals, 4 for the Bloc and 1 Green. This was the first election that the Liberals had failed to finish first or second in, and the first time the NDP formed the official opposition.

For most of the current term, polling showed a race between the Liberals and Tories, with the NDP fading back to third. However, in early May the NDP had a stunning victory in the very conservative province of Alberta, which had not voted for a progressive government since the 1930’s. This victory appears to have created a poll surge for the NDP nationally, and it is now a close three way race between the three major Canadian parties.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp poll aggregate currently has the NDP on 33.2%, the Tories on 29.1%, the Liberals on 27.6%, the Greens on 5.5% and the Quebec Bloc on 3.7%. In seat terms, the NDP currently has 110-139 seats, the Tories 98-143 and the Liberals 73-111; 170 seats are required for a one-party majority.

On current polling, the NDP is likely to form a minority government supported by the Liberals. Even if the Tories win more seats than the NDP, I expect the NDP and Liberals to form a coalition to oust the Tories. However, the danger for the Canadian Left is that a split vote between the major left parties could allow the Tories to win a majority with a vote as low as 35%. As there are still over six weeks until the election, and given that international polling has been poor recently, such an outcome cannot be ruled out.

Can Donald Trump win the US 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination?

The United States has two major parties: President Obama’s Democrats and the right wing Republicans. Both parties select their presidential candidates using a system in which people who identify as either Democratic or Republican cast their votes for their preferred nominee. Rather than use a national vote on one day, the US “primaries” will take place on a state by state basis from February to June 2016. These primaries bind delegates to support a particular candidate at the two parties’ July 2016 conventions, which will officially nominate that party’s presidential candidate. The general election will be held in November 2016.

The first two states to vote are Iowa and New Hampshire (NH) in early February, and it is considered very important to do well in at least one of these states. On the RealClearPolitics (RCP) poll averages, Donald Trump is in first place in both states, with 26% in Iowa and 28% in NH; Trump also has 27% of the national Republican vote.

There are 17 candidates for the Republican nomination, which is why just over 20% is enough for Trump to lead at this stage. However, it is likely that many candidates will drop out after the Iowa and NH votes, so second choice votes will be crucial in determining the nominee.

Trump is running an anti-establishment campaign with a particular focus on building a wall across the US-Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants. This campaign has a great appeal to Republican voters. The highly regarded Des Moines Register Iowa poll has Trump dramatically flipping his favourability ratings among Republicans, from 27-63 unfavourable in May to 61-35 favourable in late August.

In early August, Nate Silver wrote about Trump’s “Six Stages of Doom”, predicting that Trump had only a 2% chance of winning the nomination. I think Trump’s improved favourability ratings means his potential vote ceiling is higher than it appeared when Silver wrote his article. All the establishment candidates are in the single digits, and Trump defeats all other candidates except another anti-establishment candidate, Ben Carson, head to head.

Trump may not win the Republican nomination, but, in my opinion, his chances of winning is at least 20%, not 2%.

On the Democratic side, I agree with Silver’s colleague Harry Enten that Hillary Clinton is likely to be the nominee. Although she may lose Iowa and NH to populist left winger Bernie Sanders, she dominates with Black and Hispanic voters, who are greatly underrepresented in Iowa and NH, but make up over half the Democratic electorate in some states. A late entry by Vice President Joe Biden could complicate Clinton’s run. Obama has had two terms as President, and is constitutionally prevented from running for a third term.