Political analysts don’t often make confessions, but I have one to make. My initial caution and scepticism about Rudd’s chances looks to have been dead wrong, if (I think) reasonable at the time of writing. A very good case could now be made that we’ve reached a tipping point and the election has already been won by Labor. That’s not to assert definitively that it will be, because it’s still a long way to go, but at this point in the election year cycle, it’s eminently plausible to think that some tectonic plates have shifted mightily.
Political analysis and psephology are as much arts as sciences, so commentary often only reflects the prevailing state of the political front. Much of politics is a battle for position, and day to day moves can frequently obscure longer term trends.
But two common errors are made in the practice of electoral analysis. The first is to assume every election is going to be similar to previous campaigns. Much commentary so far this year has followed a script which seems to be based on the assumption that this election will be a replay of the last one. Fighting the last war, in other words.
For instance, Kevin Rudd has had to prove to the commentariat that he is “not Latham”. But at the same time every move in this year’s political game is compared against the Latham-Howard contest of 2004. Some pundits could barely contain their glee when they seized upon the broadband policy as “Rudd’s forest policy mistake”. And we've heard an awful lot about honeymoons.
The second mistake is to ignore or misconstrue such evidence as does exist about electoral behaviour. For instance, it’s often asserted that a large number of voters make up their minds very close to the end of a campaign. That’s held to be an advantage for incumbents. But in the American midterm elections, undecided voters broke very much the same way as swinging voters who’d already decided their vote - overwhelmingly for the Democrats. In fact, despite all the noise of the battle and the negative campaign, the Republicans had probably lost Congress when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Whether or not Labor wins in a landslide this year (as the polls overwhelmingly suggest may be on the cards), it’s quite plausible to suggest that a tipping point occurred quite some time ago. In 2004, evidence from the Australian Electoral Survey suggests that interest rates as an issue wasn’t a major vote switcher. That’s not to say that it didn’t play a part, but it’s likely that Howard was on to something with his central theme of “trust”. Put bluntly, there was a lot of evidence that the electorate were desperate for an alternative to Howard in 2004, but that Mark Latham blew himself out of the water. Not least the fact that Labor, with a disastrous leader, still managed to score 47 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.
It’s instructive in this context to have a look at two very different recently published analyses of the state of political play in Australia, from Judith Brett in The Monthly, and from Peter Hartcher in the latest Quarterly Essay.
In some ways, it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Hartcher was given 20,000 or so words to write what is little different from the ephemeral political op-ed that passes for political analysis in the Australian media. Hartcher is by no means an incompetent analyst, but like Steve Lewis in The Australian, his writing rarely departs from conventional wisdom.
In “Bipolar Nation: How to Win the 2007 Election” (see On Line Opinion for an edited extract), his advice to Labor can be distilled down into that familiar nostrum of newsprint commentary - Rudd must overcome Howard’s advantages on national security and the economy.
In truth, Rudd probably doesn’t need any more advice on how to win the election than he’s already receiving.
Howard is winning it for him, by losing it.
As I wrote recently in Crikey, incumbency only provides an unassailable political fortress for a long term government when the opposition is so disunified and incompetent that voters opt for the devil they know, but with a fair degree of disgust. This analysis derives from research Graham Young and I carried out for The National Forum on the Queensland and New South Wales state elections, which picked the trend that an incompetent Liberal party would actually go backwards in some seats as voters punish the opposition for not providing a viable alternative to a government they’d love to see replaced.
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