April 06, 2004 | Graham

Gravity asserts itself

It wasn’t good reportage but it was probably accurate commentary, when the AM reporter said this morning that the latest Newspoll (reported in The Australian) shows that the Mark Latham’s satisfaction rating as Opposition Leader has “peaked”.
There’s been a 14 point fall in Latham’s satisfaction rating as well as a 5 point fall in those who prefer him as Prime Minister. John Howard now leads Latham on the second question by 11 percent.
Latham’s satisfaction rating was always unrealistically high and unlikely to stay where it was. There is nothing remarkable in the fall. For an Opposition Leader he is still doing extraordinarily well in terms of personal popularity. Despite the media’s tendency to interpret political events as a struggle between personalities, the party vote is much more indicative of the real state of the parties. This shows Labor in a landslide winning position with 53% and the Coalition on 47%.
We are conducting a focus group on Latham this evening so I will have a better idea tomorrow morning why his approval has slumped. (We’ll be conducting other groups on his leadership and if you want to be considered for participation, fill in the questionnaire at www.ozelections.com).
However, one should not accept the simplistic assumption that the fall is a result of Latham’s decision to bring our troops home from Iraq by Christmas – polls do not generally reflect reactions to those sorts of issues this quickly. It may just be a result of gravity on an abnormally high honeymoon score. Much of Latham’s “approval” rating was actually driven by a low “disapproval” rating coupled with a very low “neutral” rating. There is no way anyone announcing policies can maintain a sub 20% disapproval rating and negligible neutrals, so something has to give.
It is also likely to be a result of the “drag” that is created when voters start thinking about what a party will do in government. Voters will react to Latham as Opposition Leader in a totally different way than they will to him as Prime-Minister-in-waiting, and a high approval rating will actually speed this change in perception. Their perceptions become less emotional (and susceptible to “warm fuzzies” like reading to your kids) and more analytical (what’s in it for me?).
Another factor is likely to be the fact that for the last two weeks Latham has been “off message”. Most people may believe that they were misled about the war in Iraq, but they still believe that Howard is the best person to handle this issue. By getting caught up in the Iraq issue Latham actually ended up playing Howard’s game. No matter how well he plays, his end of the field is tilted, and he cannot win. By engaging in a debate about troop withdrawals Latham denied himself the opportunity to argue about health and education, the issues where the field tilts his way.
I’ll let you know what our participants say tonight. They might have another view, and afterall, they are the only ones who are experts in this field.

Posted by Graham at 10:17 am | Comments Off on Gravity asserts itself |
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