Polling, Politicians and Performance – How market research contributed to Abbott’s downfall


Turnbull with poll

One of the biggest stories of 2015 was the political ‘knifing’ of Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull. Much has been written about the apparent dysfunction in Abbott’s office that contributed to his colleagues losing patience and finally ousting him on September 14, 2015. The role of Mr. Abbott’s formidable Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, in his downfall has also been heavily canvassed. Clearly too Mr. Abbott’s frequent “gaffes” implied a lack of judgment that was seized upon by his political enemies as justification for the coup. However one angle that is worth considering is the role that market research and polling played in Abbott’s downfall. Certainly Mr. Turnbull stated that part of his justification for taking over the leadership was that the party had been down in the opinion polls.

“The only thing that is clear about our current situation is our trajectory. We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”  Malcolm Turnbull, September 14, 2015

But are political opinion polls a type of market research? Clearly the answer is yes when you take the view that marketing research are “the methods a business utilizes to gather and analyse information regarding the market for a company’s products.” (Tiwary R 2015). These methods can range from research about existing products, where consumers choose to purchase, the opportunities for products, what drives decisions at the point of purchase… options are endless. So too, political opinion polling is all about gathering information, with the electorate being the ‘market’ and the ‘products’ being the leaders themselves.

Let us consider now the modern political opinion poll. Interestingly polling for elections in Australia was first commissioned by newspapers in 1943, so it is not a recent phenomenon. (Coot, Murray 2014.) These questions can be as simple as the classic “Who is your preferred PM? “ How is this any different to the classic marketing research question of whether you prefer a Coke or a Pepsi? Essentially you are being asked to compare two products; the only difference in this case is that the “products” in question are two competing leaders of political parties.

A cynic could argue that opinion polls are driven largely by the large media outlets, where it’s a relatively cheap form of front page news content. But are they then a reporter of news content or a creator? Another challenge is that the reporting on opinion polls has been found as far back as 1985 as being “extensive, superficial and inaccurate.” (Smith T, Verrall D 1985). The argument being to make news ‘interesting’ the poll coverage is often simplified and in the process becomes inaccurate. So do we have a situation whereby market research techniques are applied to political matters, but potentially flawed poll reporting is driving public policy and even leadership decisions?

Back to the opinion polls it is not just the Liberal party that has sought to use opinion polls as a justification to change leaders. The Labor party too, in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era appeared to also rely heavily on polls to help drive decisions on whom to lead the party.

“Julia Gillard has delivered a stark warning to her erstwhile Labor colleagues, to beware the frippery of selfies and the whims of opinion polls or risk never regaining the trust of the public. ” (Hall, B 2013.)

Back to the current political situation, given that Turnbull used Abbott’s unpopularity in opinion polls as a part justification in knifing him, will Turnbull’s own downturn in the polls (see below) lead to further destabilization?

Poll 2 jpg

After all, if you cite market research as justification for the preverbal ‘blood on your hands’ it’s hard to argue that the same rules of the game shouldn’t apply to you when your own polling numbers start to move south.

Turnbull blood on his hands

By Carmel Norton


Student number; 215033499


Coot, Murray 2014, ‘Labors 1943 Landslide : Political market research, Evatt and the Public opinion polls’ Labor History Nov 2014 Issue 107 p 149-166

Hall, B 2013 ‘Gillard fires parting shot at Rudd and opinion polls’ Sydney Morning Herald September 15 2013 date retrieved 17/4/16 http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/gillard-fires-parting-shot-at-rudd-and-opinion-polls-20130914-2trrm.html

Kenny, M 2016 ‘Fairfax-Ispos poll points to knife edge result between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten’ April 17 2016 date retrieved April 17 2016 http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/voters-expected-more-poll-20160417-go8b73.html

Smith T, Verrall D 1985 ‘A critical analysis of Australian Television Coverage of election opinion polls’ Public Opinion Quarterly Spring 1985 Vol 49 p 58

Tiwary, R 2015 ‘Marketing research, Research starters; Business (on line edition)’ date retrieved 17 April 2015 Deakin University database.



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