If only 52% of voters have made a choice are the polls worth looking at? Well actually yes.


The two most recent polls suggest good news for the Greens, as well as the Grand Coalition government – SPÖ (Social Democrats) and ÖVP (conservatives):

SPÖ 27%,  ÖVP 25%,  FPÖ 18%,  Greens 15%,  Team Stronach: 9%,  BZÖ 2%, Others  4% (30th May 2013: Gallup/oe)

SPÖ 27%,  ÖVP 25%,  FPÖ 18%,  Greens 16%,  Team Stronach: 10%,  BZÖ 1%,  Others 3% (31st May 2013: Karmazin/Heute)

For the Grünen it’s been a good few weeks since their dramatic success in the Salzburg State elections.  With the exception of the IMAS poll they have polled 16%, 15%, 15%, and 16%. Breaking through the 15 points barrier is a big psychological boost. Expect the Party leadership to spend June talking about getting 15% in the General Election in September. If poll rating were to continue to hold we’ll then see them talking about 15% to 20% and becoming the third largest party.

The SPÖ will be happy to see their ratings back to 27% and hope this will halt the talk in the press about the downward slide in their vote after Salzburg.

For the ÖVP it’s now five polls in a row with them at 25% or higher and within striking distance of overtaking the SPÖ for first place.

As for the FPÖ (Far-Right), their poll rating is still slipping downwards. The recent publicity about their ‘negative migration’ stance may help them hold their hard core but is likely to drive some of their protest vote supporters into the hands of the more ‘respectable populist’ protest party Team Stronach.

Current national average ratings based upon last five polls:

SPÖ: 27%,  ÖVP: 25.6%,  FPÖ 18.4%,  Greens 14.8%,  Team Stronach:  9.0%,  BZÖ 2.0%,  Others 3.2%

 

Good news then?

But wait. Take a look at the Gallup/oe poll here and scroll about half way down the article. According to Gallup’s survey only 52% know who they would choose come the General Election in September.

So, if 48% of potential voters don’t know who they would vote for, are the polls worth paying attention too? Well it’s yet another reason why the public, journalists, and politicians shouldn’t get too excited about the individual polls we are seeing. But yes, for those who want to know what is happening today and how that might play-out in the forthcoming General Election, then the polling trends (rather than individual polls) are worth observing and understanding.

Those trends do have an impact and are only likely to be disrupted by the occasional unexpected turn of events (even these only rarely have a lasting impact). Here are three reasons why:

  1. Floating voters are more likely to be influenced by the ‘mood music’ of politics and the expectations as to likely winners (and possible coalitions).
  2. Journalist and sub-editors choose headlines and stories based upon the drama/expectations generated by the polls.
  3. Politicians like to ignore or hype polls to their advantage but these public polls (and their own private polling) combined with the headlines (see point 2) often drive their agenda/strategies.

I’m not arguing that polling trends are the only factor, campaigning by the parties and social changes are amongst some of the other key influences. But in an election year polling trends have an influence over the electoral story which parties either seek to fuel or need to counter.

What are the polls really telling us?

Most importantly that below the surface there is a lot of movement in support, that the levels of committed support for any given party are an increasingly small proportion of those indicating a preference in the polls.

The trend amongst strategists of parties in recent times has been to maximise voter turnout amongst the committed which often means fighting increasingly negative campaigns, which in turn lead to a lower overall numbers voting. Recent State elections, which had historically low turnouts, would suggest to me that this strategy may now no longer  be an effective formula – these low turnouts saw core voters staying at home/switching and previous non-voters turning up at the polling stations.

Despite the main parties wanting to make the election a straight fight A vs B with the others as minor sideshows, the reality looks as though it’s going to be very different. Each party is going to be seeking to secure support from those increasingly loosely aligned to one or two other parties while persuading their own support not to switching to a third or fourth alternative (or staying at home). With a volatile electorate and more parties (realistically) to choose from, individual poll headlines will be of even less value in predicting the outcome.

So we need to look to the trends and movements in support to provide the better guide to changes in attitudes amongst voters in the key two or three or four sub-battles each Party will have to fight and therefore the outcome in September. For example the ÖVP may talk about its challenge to the SPÖ but presently it is gaining from the fight between the FPÖ and Team Stronach – the ÖVP talking about traditional SPÖ issues is not about its main fight with its coalition partners but positioning to scope up voters from the populist camps.

Current poll trends amongst current parties in parliament

SPÖ

There is little evidence to suggest that they can do better than the 2008 General Election result of 29.30%. They are -2.30% compared to 2008; -1.6% down on Jan ’12 their poll average. Unless they have a good summer I would expect them to be below 27% on election night.

ÖVP

Although -0.4% points compared to 2008, they have been the big movers since January having added 2.8%. Their poll figures are reasonably steady but unlikely to rise much more unless FPÖ vote collapses (they have benefited in recent months from the FPÖ vs Team Stronach battle). Will probably only take first spot in the polls if SPÖ vote falls below 24% mark.

FPÖ

In major decline and it could get worse. Although +0.9% points compared to 2008, they have dropped 8.2% points in the polls since Jan ’12. Defeats in the State elections, internal problems, corruption and other scandals, combined with the emergence of Team Stronach as an alternative protest party, have taken their toll. Down -2.4% since January ’13, don’t be surprised if they fall further and are overtaken by the Greens.

Greens

The Grünen are riding a wave of positive press and poll ratings. Up 4.4% points compared to 2008 and now about to be in government in five of Austria’s nine States, things are looking good for the Party. It’s a little hyped but the trend is positive. The change from January (pre four State elections) and now is just +0.8%. What looks different is that they have started to break through the 15% mark in some polls. If the Greens can maintain unity they may well become Austria’s third party.

Team Stronach

Only formed at the end of September 2012 by the Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, Team Stronach’s (TS) 9% at first glance seems impressive. However, despite the millions spent and disproportionate press coverage, the Party has seen its average poll rating drop from 11% to 9%. In the State elections TS did demonstrate the ability to motivate previous non-voters and disproportionately attract voters abandoning the FPÖ. If as I suspect the FPÖ continues to decline TS may well start to be the main beneficiary, it may also pull a few percentage points from the ÖVP and/or SPÖ if either falters.

BZÖ

Regularly polling between 1% and 2%, the BZÖ are all but certain to fail to reach the 4% threshold for seats in parliament.

 

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