The poll as a political weapon

When applied correctly, statistics is an elegant tool that can help us put a random and uncertain world into context.  When abused, it can help dark and mysterious powers further their own nefarious agendas.  In its most brutal form, statistics can be used as a weapon to club the thick-witted over the head.

No game is quite so brutal as politics.

It’s been an interesting few weeks of local politics here in South Australia.  South Australia has a fixed 4-year electoral cycle and our next election is due in March 2010.  The Liberal opposition party isn’t making any real headway against the Labor incumbents who dominate the political landscape.  To make matters worse, the State Liberal leader, Martin Hamilton-Smith (MHS), recently entangled himself in a “dodgy documents” scandal.  He tried to embarrass the government with some “leaked” emails that turned out to be forgeries.  If the Liberal party are to present any kind of alternative government to the people they need to quickly put this controversy behind them; present a united front; and build positive momentum over the remaining nine months leading into the formal campaign.  Leadership rumblings in the face of a looming election would be too much of a distraction.  In short, MHS’ position became untenable.  However, a trigger was needed to effect his removal.  That trigger was, of all things, a little statistic.

Last week, Mike Rann, the current Labor Premier of South Australia fired a warning shot of what was to come on the social networking site, twitter:

Some of the polling to be dribbled out over next few weeks will be of dubious provenance but Lib plotters hope it will spook/stampede MPs.

-Mike Rann, Premier of South Australia, on twitter, 5:43 PM, 27 June 2009

Sure enough, the very next day, polling of dubious provenance dribbled out of our local propaganda rag, the Sunday Mail.

A Sunday Mail poll of 483 Adelaide metropolitan voters put Labor on 64 per cent to the Liberals’ 36 percent on a two party-preferred basis.

-AdelaideNow, 28 June 2009

Bear in mind this “poll” had less than 500 respondents.  Even if everything had been above board, that would put the margin of error at about 4-5 percentage points or so.  Reputable polling companies typically canvass a greater sample size (usually about 1200) to reduce the margin of error.  However the poll contained multiple flaws.  For a start, it covered metropolitan Adelaide only, not the whole State.  Further, the Sunday Mail didn’t bother to explain which electorates were included, how the polling was conducted, or by whom.  They couldn’t even be bothered to present the results in a tabled summary for detailed scrutiny.  It’s what Darrell Huff would have described as a phoney statistic.  It’s what I would describe as horse shit.  The poll was biased, politically motivated and compromised from the outset.

But it had its desired result.  There was a leadership spill.  Just as the “Lib plotters” had hoped, the MPs were spooked by the dodgy poll.  Support for MHS melted away.  Although he scraped back in, by the narrowest of margins (11-10, with one abstaining), it was a Pyrrhic victory.  Realising that the margin was too slender to lead effectively, MHS promptly quit.  There’ll be another leadership ballot tomorrow which MHS won’t be contesting.  So that’s it, he’s gone.

All thanks to a little statistic.

Funnily enough, the powerbrokers have apparently decided that this whole dodgy polling strategy is a winner.  Whereas it can be used to tear one leader down, it can be used to build up the next.  Mike Rann went on to post on twitter:

After Lib leader settled we’ll see campaign by one media to promote whoever wins. We might see odd dodgy poll plus Press Club ‘vision’ etc

So not the last we’ll see of the poll as a political weapon.  Interesting times ahead.


Disclaimer: I am not associated with any political party.  I simply have a keen interest in statistics and its application in the world.