Interpreting the Victorian election sub text

The blog got an email this week from the Victorian ALP State Secretary and Campaign Drector, Noah Carroll, imploring the blog to help the cause as the election was ‘too close to call’. About the same time the blog read a background briefing from a ‘Coalition strategist’ which pointed out that the current polls may  be unreliable because the Coalition could expect to get a bigger share of the undecided voters than the polls assumed.

Now on the face of it the ALP is well in front with all the polls given leads of a size which suggest that a Napthine Government defeat is at least a 65% probability based on extrapolating some useful (but not strictly comparable) data from Nate Silver (see previous blogs). The betting markets are offering $5.20 on the Coalition and $1.14 on Labor which are pretty remarkable odds for a two horse race (sorry the Greens don’t really make a third) and you would be tempted to have flutter on Dennis Napthine at those odds.

Moreover, the academic Simon Jackman, has recently released some research on betting markets as a predictor in the 2013 Federal election which suggests they aren’t that reliable as an independent indicator. Nic Reece, currently at University of Melbourne and formerly a Labor official and advisor, brought the research to the blog’s attention.  See The Jackman analysis suggests that the markets, as to be expected, largely reflect polling movements although with some lags. Informally betting markets have also been thought to reflect some insider knowledge although little concrete evidence of this has emerged, unlike that for the remarkable achievement of one punter at a betting shop near Kensington Palace who had miraculous success picking Royal children’s names.

But putting aside the data the blog thinks the ‘texts’ mentioned above deserve a bit more analysis and deconstruction. From experience the blog interprets the Noah Carroll email as actually saying ‘we are quietly confident but we don’t want to take anything for granted and don’t want to seem too cocky’. The Coalition strategist comments are actually saying ‘we are in deep trouble but we have to give the faithful some hope from some quarter or other’.

This textual analysis can be mixed with a bit of media analysis. Leaving out the Herald Sun, which is approaching the election as you would expect a News masthead to, the media catch up stories are quite interesting. For instance the two year plus Labor grassroots campaigning has just been ‘discovered’ by the media and being written, and spoken, of with a confident air as if they had always taken the impacts into their calculations. In fact comments on the grassroots campaigning were until very recently, in Tacitus’ words, largely ‘conspicuous by their absence.’ A spectacular example of this was crikey’s Charles Richardson who was very recently authoritatively talking about the total lack of grassroots Labor campaigning compared to the Greens.

The media analysis of the leaders is similar. The Labor leader, Dan Andrews, is no longer a wooden and negative campaigner but a ‘regular guy’. The Napthine campaign is now unimpressive although it was confidently predicted he would out campaign Andrews. Neither judgement is probably right in entirety just as the previous media views were not entirely wrong. What is clear though is that the media is playing catch up with realities they didn’t anticipate.  Indeed, if the great sociologist Robert K. Merton was still alive he would probably update the phrase he coined – ‘the self-fulfilling prophecy’ – to something about ‘self-destructing prophecies’.

The problem for the Coalition is not only that the fashionable political concept of the momentum seems to be moving against them but that the more you lag behind the more problems you seem to have and the more they get incorporated in the dominant narrative. For instance, while Labor has had the odd bit of incoming from the CFMEU the Coalition has had incoming from Neo-Nazi campaigners being photographed with the Premier to a candidate withdrawing because of domestic violence allegations and the former doesn’t seem to be getting as much traction as the latter.

A graphic example of how this problem works in politics was a photograph of French President, Francoise Hollande, on an island off the Brittany coast where he was commemorating the 70th anniversary of French liberation from Nazi occupation. He stood alone as an Atlantic rainstorm lashed the coast. Needless to say the hapless Hollande was pilloried (see the Financial Times 30/31 August 2014 and Canard Enchaine’s headline ‘Avec moi, le deluge.’ 27 August 2014). The problem for Hollande was that he was damned whatever happened simply because he was in so much political trouble. If an aide had arrived with an umbrella Hollande would have been pilloried for standing under it when commemorating people who had other things than rain to think about during the Liberation. If he stood alone – soaked – as he did he was merely confirming his isolation and failure.

Nevertheless, whatever happens on Saturday 29 November various campaign strategists will suddenly be heralded as genii; others will be dismissed as failed and incompetent; political commentators will assure us they predicted it all; and some punters, if the Coalition wins, will be celebrating a remarkable bit of financial and political good fortune while, if Labor wins, some punters will have to be happy with a tiny financial reward to go with their political good fortune.