Well that was a wild ride, and it’s not quite over yet. In this post I’ll present the final ‘exit poll’ or survey 3 qualitative results, and make some general comments about voter behaviour in the Wentworth By-election. In a second post I’ll do a bit more number crunching with the quantitative results, and evaluate the performance of the poll. There’s a lot going on, so I thought it best to break into two parts. But even with this wealth collection of data, there is much about the Wentworth by-election I really don’t understand. In particular, why did so many people professing not to like Phelps vote for her, and what happened to Licia Heath’s vote?
Unlike the Super Saturday by-elections, where our samples were small and quite unbalanced in some cases, the samples in Wentworth were reasonable (more respondents would have been better) and the combination of the panel and the poll gave us two different insights into what was going on. The detailed, qualitative insight of the panel was the most valuable. This picked up the indecision, the strategic voting, the volatility of the Phelps vote and that voters had every intent of exercising their democratic right with bat in hand. It also picked up that there was no dislike for Dave Sharma himself, other than some disquiet about him not being local – the anger was at the party – and there was a substantial core of Liberal supporters who would still vote Liberal for “Government Stability”.
(All quotes and numbers below are from the 365 responses to the election weekend ‘exit poll’ survey and panel survey 3. Full sample details will be in post 2.)
THE STRATEGIC VOTE
What this final survey 3 – or the ‘exit poll’ survey – picked up very clearly was this very late surge in purely strategic voting. A significant number of particularly Murray voters shifted to Phelps because they had bought the line that Phelps had to come second, because if she didn’t, her preferences would elect the Liberals.(We can find references to this on Facebook and Twitter as early as the 8th of October when Joe Hildebrand wrote this piece about the Greens’ preferencing decisions, but through Twitter analysis we think the argument gathered steam on the 15th and reached saturation level on the 17th of October.) The Greens shifting their message with statements from Di Natale and Bob Brown rode that wave and reclaimed their earlier significant losses, while Heath and Murray got completely wiped out.
Firstly, utter nonsense. The quick poll preference tracking, the second wave of the panel, and this final survey, showed over 90% of Phelps voters had put the Liberals last. That’s a pretty big hangover for the voters of Wentworth when they realise that, after weeks of complaining that Phelps had preferenced the Liberals, they rewarded her for it, and all they actually had to do was trust their fellow constituents.
Secondly, this means that Phelps did not ‘win’ Wentworth. As in she did not win their hearts and minds. Bullied into submission is closer to mark. Despite the claims of running a clean campaign, the line that Heath was running solely backed by Clover Moore to tear Phelps down, pushed by Phelps surrogate Margo Kingston, was one of the nastiest of the campaign (given it undermined the entire Heath campaign, rather than just one aspect that can be rebutted, and is an indefensible accusation – the political equivalent of ‘are you beating your wife?’). It was certainly a blatant lie.
The strategic ‘need’ to vote Phelps was pushed by GetUp and an army of Twitterati and Facebookers who deliberately trolled people genuinely trying to discuss how they should vote and preference, aggressively abusing them if they did not agree, and blocking them if they pushed back. It was quite extraordinary to watch in real time, and, in a brief review of the roughly 380,000 tweets captured from the last month, borders on alarming to see how extensive the behaviour was. (Although the vast bulk of discussion was reaction to news coverage of the race). Phelps herself stalked Facebook feeds and Twitter discussions to insert herself in the conversation, criticising anyone that did not shower her with affection or agree she was the ‘only’ non-Liberal candidate who could win, and blocked wantonly. (She and some of her supporters were also apparently blocked from at least one local Facebook group due to their campaigning activity, which of course will be disputed.)
Tim Murray was clearly most hard hit by the ‘strategic vote’ argument, and Licia Heath took a hit as well – although it seems not enough to fully explain where her numbers went or why. GetUp’s how to vote (HTV) sheet, which had Murray below Phelps on every option except the Labor vote column, Hildebrands piece and a fresh article from Margo Kingston on the 18th, fueled the Greens’ move away from him, which assisted the bandwagon effect for Phelps and with it a whole lot more chatter. But there are clear indications that many voters of Wentworth were not happy doing it, this is just a selection:
“…I met Licia and really liked her, but I knew she wouldn’t beat Sharma, so I voted for Kerryn Phelps despite her shortcomings.”
“…While I wanted to vote for Heath, my priority was voting in the way that Sharma has least likelihood to win… I don’t trust that Phelps is definitely going to win so put her 1 instead of 3.”
“…I voted for Phelps to stop the Libs from winning. I actually wanted to vote for Labor.”
“…I changed my vote from Labor to Kerryn Phelps. I did this as she seemed the most likely choice to defeat the Liberal party.”
“…my original preference was to vote Murray 1 and Phelps 2 – send a message to Liberals but ultimately elect Phelps on preferences. However, there was a distinct possibility that it could come out Sharma first, Murray second and Phelps third (instead of the other way around with Phelps 2 and Murray 3). If Phelps was eliminated in third place then her preferences would be distributed over the final 2 and this MAY elect Sharma. I could not let this happen, so I changed to vote Phelps 1 and Murray 2.”
“…I picked Phelps as a strategic vote. I don’t think Labor have as good a chance as Phelps to force a hung parliament. I would like to go back to the polls in a general election as soon as possible to force a Labor government…Both my husband and mother in law who have lived in the electorate for a long time indicated they were voting independent despite being Labor voters.”
“…media analysis that Phelps’ voters would likely preference Libs over ALP led me to preference Phelps over ALP even though I would prefer the ALP to win”
“…I don’t really like Kerryn but I feel like she is the best bet to preference in order to stop Sharma from winning “
You can’t pull that trick twice, so it’s safe to assume all those strategic voters will go back to their respective corners at the general election, which I estimate will wipe a minimum 30% off Phelps’ primary vote.
THE FAKE HIV EMAIL
Phelps’ leaping on any issue flying past and stealing others’ lines is something generally only the seasoned observer picks up on, although you would have thought someone in the media would have called her on picking up Dave Sharma’s response to the fake HIV email as stigmatising people living with HIV, and then pretending that was her concern, then shifting to that plus a homophobic element was her main objection to the email (as opposed to her ‘dirty tricks’ poor me mantra) when all of her opponents had risen above… rather than joined her in the muckiest of mud. By election night, her line had morphed from there, to reporting it to authorities to make sure it doesn’t happen to another candidate, into the email being ‘an opportunity to educate people about living with HIV’ according to comments immediately after her victory speech. It’s really quite a feat to spin a fake email into a week-long news-cycle-dominating story with that many twists… she must have thrown a full pike in there somewhere.
Voters had a mixed reaction to the fake email story. For some, it was yet another reason to vote for her (although she doesn’t appear to have gained new votes from it), or added to their general disgust of politicians:
“…I think the tactics used by Phelps’ opposition (HIV Email) was disgusting, and it only made me want to vote for her more. “
“…The email smear campaign was gutter politics and disrespectful”
“…Shocked by campaign antics eg Kerryn Phelps HIV email”
“…An email sent to individuals and business’ in the electorate advising that Kerryn had contracted HIV was pretty low and awful”
“…That appalling email targeting Kerryn Phelps claiming she had withdrawn from the campaign because she had HIV … disgusting tactics”
“…Low life email about Kerryn Phelps – only politicians could be that LOW”
Others thought perhaps Phelps was behind the email.
“… Phelps is pretty entitled and nasty in person, I wouldn’t put it past her to have sent that email herself”
“…I believe GetUp or their ilk sent that email”
“…Kerryn Phelps supposedly being the victim of a smear email. Doubt if it came from Libs, wreaks of being a fake stunt. Suspect either someone on her side or another minor trying to gain sympathy vote”
THE BLATANT JEWISH PITCH WITH JERUSALEM #FAIL
Some of you may have seen me in various stages of torture on Twitter watching the goysplaining (goy= non-Jew) of the Jewish vote following that… let’s quote a respondent… “Jerusalem embassy brain fart”. It most certainly cost more votes than it gained, a set up a veritable explosion of antisemitism when combined with the pre-poll and postal vote wind back of Phelps’ margin – thanks Scotty, just what the community wanted.
I was waiting for Israel to enter the conversation, and Jerusalem is the biggest Ace in the Israel deck of very complicated, emotional and difficult issues. But (this is my 2 cents) going for the dumb populist line in the final week of a heated campaign is both beneath the extremely diplomatic and cautious former Ambassador for Israel, and the not-at-all-homogenous, well educated, often flying out to Israel and totally across the nuances of this issue, Jewish population of Wentworth. Both of whom (I presume) knew full well that whether Palestine chairs the G77 has nothing to do with office space for the embassy, and that such attention on the ‘Wentworth Jews’ would be unhelpful. One can only guess that this was either a) Scomo or wannabe ‘strategists’ trying to be clever, and making a total hash of it, or b) a pitch for the general campaign to woo Hanson and Bernardi voters with the ‘I’m just like Trump’ silliness. End rant, let’s see what some of the respondents said:
“…Embassy move was a cheap stunt by Liberals to get Jewish votes.”
“…Not sure what the proposed location of the Australian Embassy in Jerusalem had to do with the Wentworth By-Election?”
“…Feeling outraged by government threatening Middle East peace by moving Australian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem”
“…turned off by just about everything that has come out of Scott Morrison’s mouth. But especially the Jerusalem announcement – news flash: some of us can and do critically think.”
“…the Jerusalem announcement is where they really lost me. It was as if the Liberals were trying to show contempt for our intelligence.”
“…using Jerusalem – the holy city – as a political pawn in a by-election. Using the Jewish people for their own political gain. Disgusting.”
“…the decision on the Israel embassy was idiotic and irresponsible.”
“…It is very bad to play a card like moving the embassy to Jerusalem as a pawn to attract Jewish votes in a by election.”
And so on. To be fair, there were a handful Liberal voters who liked it, and didn’t express some reservation at the handling of the issue.
The SMH Live debate and the episode of The Drum on the Thursday night seemed to have been highly influential events, both at the time and related social media chatter. The data indicates that Twitter and Facebook were highly influential throughout the campaign, but whereas Facebook had ruled influence in survey 2, in the final days, personal conversations seemed to have helped people solidify their decision, both with the campaigns and candidates, and more broadly.
“…spoke with a GetUp person about putting the Liberals last”
“…friends from political parties told me about things that aren’t on the website”
“…spoke with Tim Murray at the polling booth and he seemed like a decent guy, so I voted for him”
“… talked to Licia Heath at a forum and she was so intelligent and across the issues”
“…Dr Phelps called me personally to discuss my concerns”
“…talking with a classmate on who to vote for”
“…talking to friends and colleagues about how crap the Liberals are”
“…spoke with Grandma about Dave Sharma’s chances”
“…spoke with friends about preferences”
“…discussed preferences with my wife, agreeing on an order”
“…talking with friends re decision about Jerusalem, but the main areas of decision related to who to put last”
“…I had several conversations with my partner where we agreed we needed to vote tactically to keep Sharma out and Phelps was the best hope. “
GetUp’s activities definitely did have an impact, with a number of references to using their HTV (there were also references to an Support the ABC flyer and a live export ranking?). Not all of their activity was effective, however:
“…GetUp phoned me to put Liberal Party last, so I put them first.”
REASONS FOR VOTE
The largest group of responses shifted significantly from earlier surveys to the best candidate for the job, with strategy up only 2% despite the clear evidence across the responses that it had a very significant impact in moving votes in the final week (26% of vote shifters nominated strategy as their primary vote reason). It was clear that anger about Turnbull had subsided to some extent, as had anger about Phelps preferencing the Liberals, largely because it was replaced by new outrage at the shocking last week of the campaign the Liberals had. A new category of ‘campaign reaction’ indicates clear evidence of saturation as election day neared, and is mostly a negative reaction (that is voting against) a particular candidate because they didn’t like their negative campaigning, or in the case of the Liberals, just the sheer number of their ads, letters and other contact.
Climate change and refugees dominated the specific policy reasons given for voting a particular way, and the issues nominated as important in the final vote considerations.
MESSAGE TO POLITICIANS
At the end of our ‘exit poll’ surveys we always ask if there is a message voters would like to send with their vote – a way for them to be heard. While the majority were about action on climate change, or ‘stop changing Prime Ministers’, there were some absolute gems from the good people of Wentworth venting their frustration and their desire for something better… with a tone that I am tempted to describe as comparable to a scalding from an exasperated parent?
“…Listen, you bloody fools, you’re supposed to govern. Not carry on like a bunch of toddlers after a red cordial orgy.”
“…Don’t be scared to cross the floor. Your first responsibility is to your electorate not your party.”
“…In end it’s my vote that keeps you in a job ”
“…Prune back those egos and think about who you are supposed to represent.”
“…I want you to represent everyone in the electorate not just the protesters ”
“…It’s not about you; it’s about us. Never forget that.”
“…I want the Liberals to leave government and never return. I want Labor to prosecute progressive issues with courage. I want the Greens to sort out their infighting. I want more intelligent, capable, and independent politicians.”
“…Stop f*cking around asshats.”
“…Have foresight. Stop thinking of yourself. Sort out the real issues and lead like a leader should.”
“…Stop assuming I will vote in a certain way because I live in ‘Wentworth’. We are a diverse group of people but share some common areas of concern such as climate change. The world I have known is rapidly changing across many areas, including an increasingly unstable climate that we are literally living with and experiencing, and I want smart and connected politicians to represent these issues on our behalf not individuals who play stupid and selfish political games for their own limited and pointless end.”
“…I want you to back your candidates and let them serve a whole term (regardless of whether I voted for them or not) so I don’t have to vote 5000 times a year.”
“…You are in positions of power and influence. And you continue to bicker like teenagers. It’s a disgrace. You refuse to work together even in your own party. ”
“…Please please please stay focussed on the important things you believe in. Put smart people forward. Let them do their thing . To see the system put forward an intellectual lightweight like Peter Dutton as the leader of the country made me realise that it is actually possible that party politics could land us with someone like Trump.”
“…Most of us are moderate in view, generous in spirit and totally uninterested in ideology. Many of us are concerned about big issues that politicians won’t tackle. Australia’s greatest threat is our politics, which is occupied by arrogant, self important timeservers and liars.”
“…Start thinking about the future of the country, not if you’ll still be in your seat at the next election”
“…When campaigning, I want you to tell me what YOU can do, not what others can’t, making derogatory comments about other candidates and other politicians is disgraceful. It will lose my vote.”
“…Never underestimate your constituents and take them for granted. We are intelligent people and earn decent salaries but come to us with facts not fiction and treat us like real people. Understand your electorate demographics and speak to us in a way that resonates with us… you are dealing with smart people who don’t buy into your hype or BS.”
“…I want all politicians to stop behaving like children and behave professionally. No one else in their jobs gets to behave like you do, yet you do it constantly without any real consequence.”
“…it should not be assumed that traditionally Liberal supporters will stand by while the Liberals act like a bunch of petulant school bullies in a playground. The policies and behaviour of the current Government is unacceptable – embarrassing, short-sighted and inhumane – and I hope this by-election sends a clear message that their approach needs to change.”
Message sent. Standby for Part 2 where we’ll go through the final numbers.