Read our first tipping article leading up to the Federal Election from our politics expert Mark Latham.
The first thing to understand is that all polls have a statistical margin of error (usually plus or minus 2-3 percent).
These are samples of voter intentions that should be taken as a guide, not a definitive outcome.
The second thing to appreciate is the different ways in which the polls collect their data.
Traditionally in Australia, the polls commissioned and published by media outlets were conducted through random samples of telephone interviews.
But this can be a very expensive way of collecting information, requiring the employment of a large number of staff hitting the phones.
To cut costs, a number of polling companies have moved to automated telephone responses (that is, with voters being interviewed by a machine).
For many years, political insiders regarded The Australian’s Newspoll as the most reliable nationwide poll.
But now it’s moved to an automated format, conducted under the auspices of Galaxy (which runs conventional telephone polling for News Corps tabloid papers, such as the Daily Telegraph).
The other prominent automated poll in the 2016 campaign is Reachtel, commissioned by Channel 7.
It conducts nationwide surveys, plus a significant number of polls in key marginal seats.
Generally, statisticians regard automated polling as less reliable than "human contact" telephone polls.
For starters, the machine undertaking the poll has no guarantee that it’s even talking to an enrolled voter.
Moreover, people find it easier to lie or mess around with a machine than a person on the other end of the phone.
Last week in Brisbane, for instance, I met a fellow who had been polled by Reachtel the night before in the seat of Oxley.
He told me he has very interested in politics and gave false answers to manipulate the poll results.
In his words: "I wanted to see what they put on TV and how I could put my own spin on it".
If Reachtel knew this, he would immediately be removed from their database.
In the language of pollsters, he had "contaminated the poll".
So what are the most reliable polls to look at?
Let’s rule a few out.
Essential Poll is run by a left-wing Labor-leaning guy off a suspect computer database. He often asks questions suited to his own political agenda. Essential has low credibility.
Morgan Poll tends to be very erratic, recording big leads to Labor early in the campaign but then on election eve, swinging back to the Coalition. No one I know of in politics takes it seriously.
In my assessment, the two most reliable polls are Galaxy and Fairfax IPSOS, both "human contact" telephone polls with a reasonable record for accuracy.
Galaxy in particular has done well in recent State and Federal elections in getting close to the Election Day result.
IPSOS has a nationwide sample of 1400 voters, randomly generated dialing landline and mobile phones.
With these two polls, you should always factor in the margin of error and understand the possibility of what we call "rogue polls".
That is, polls that reflect a big fluctuation from the previous polled result – a statistical outlier, perhaps reflecting a methodology problem or a randomly unrepresentative sample.
For this reason, it’s best to look at the polling trend-line over time.
My best tip for campaign 2016 to take the last three Galaxy and IPSOS polls (six polls in total) and average out the results.
This should get you reasonably close to the real state of play.
There’s so much to say about polls.
I’ll save a few tips for next week – when I’ll look at primary votes, Two-Party-Preferred, leader approval polls, preferred Prime Minister, polling in individual marginal seats, internal party polling and some of the websites that analyse the published polls as a group.
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