Non-comprehensive thoughts on the polls #GE2017

By Nicholas Wong

Haven’t had the time to dig through every individual pollster and their methodologies but here are a few thoughts:

A close race?

The polls/models that seem to favour Labour the most (YouGov, Survation) seem to be the ones that estimate a higher turnout amongst young voters (who overwhelming support Labour over the Tories). The young-old turnout gap is usually substantial, so there’s reason to be (very) sceptical of a hung Parliament or Labour majority.

And it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s claimed they could win on the back of galvanising the never-voted-before bloc. Even if this youth wave happens, there’s the question of distribution — are they just running up majorities in safe Labour seats, or are they converting marginal seats?

But voter behaviour and turnout rates are also an ever-shifting target; when pollsters tweak their methodology, it’s not just to account for flaws made in the past, it’s also in anticipation of how they think conditions are now. Youth turnout in the referendum last year was significantly higher than expected, for example. If the Brexit vote’s your baseline, you might overestimate turnout this time. If 2015’s your baseline, you might be lowballing.

*There’s also a Qriously poll that actually puts Labour ahead of the Conservatives (the first to do so). But there are serious reasons to be sceptical of this poll.

What the polls agree on

What the polls do agree on is that the Tory-Labour gap has shrunk significantly — a consistent trend that just about every pollster has found. They also agree that Labour has yet to overtake the Conservatives in the polls — suggesting perhaps that the race has narrowed but not gotten neck-and-neck.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t say much. When you start a campaign with a 20-point lead, there’s not a lot of room to go up, and plenty to go down. There’s also a difference between what voters think in the day-to-day outside election time, and what they think during a campaign, where candidates and parties are generally under much greater scrutiny. It’s why so many US presidential candidates look so great on paper before primaries and the general election, only to find themselves in a much tighter race once people begin paying attention.

Of course, it surely didn’t help that Theresa May has run what pundits have called a weak campaign so far. She wasn’t a major figure in the Brexit referendum, she kept her Remain support low-key, and she avoided a drawn-out Conservative leadership contest; all of this kept her profile relatively clean for voters in the first few months of her premiership, but a general election campaign has necessarily meant spotlight — and it hasn’t helped.

Corbyn, on the other hand, has had his weaknesses litigated extensively in public since unexpectedly winning the Labour leadership in 2015. Given his own party in constant rebellion against him, his prioritisation of questions over quips at PMQs and his distinctly unpresidential style, it’s not surprising that opinion polls rated him poorly — so it’s also not surprising that he’s had nowhere to go but up in a general election.

Pundits have also noted that Corbyn looks much more at home on the campaign trail than across the dispatch box during PMQs — meeting voters rather than landing the best quips. And given the gap between the popularity of some of Corbyn’s policies and Corbyn the man, an election that pits his manifesto against the Tories’ probably hasn’t hurt.

Lastly, I’m sure there’s a bit of a reversion to the mean going on here, where some voters come back to the fold of their traditional party now that crunch time is here (as opposed to flirting with other options when they don’t have to cast a vote).

Polling errors and Shy Tories

Polling errors are a given. Two key questions, then: how big are the errors and who do they favour? Will the Tories do unexpectedly better again, like in 2015?

Tories have tended to beat their polling more than Labour , where normally you would expect polling errors to even out over time and have an equal chance of favouring either side. The popular explanation for this is the ‘Shy Tory Factor’ — the idea that Tory votes are underrepresented in polls because voters are reluctant to admit they vote Conservative.

Two points to make here. First, while the Shy Tory phenomenon is real enough, the explanation for it — voters misreporting their intentions — isn’t necessarily (or even likely) true. A post-2015 election study found that unrepresentative samples were the main reason the polls underestimated Conservative support in 2015. In other words, pollsters just weren’t surveying enough Tory voters.

Second, just because the Tories have noticeably beat their polls in the past, doesn’t make it a rule: it cannot be assumed they will always do better than the polls say. If a methodological flaw is identified, pollsters usually try to fix it. Tories also did much better than predicted in 1992; in response, pollsters began factoring in how respondents voted in previous elections to account for ‘shy’ voters. If Shy Tories were a thing, it’d probably be fixed by now.

This means that if polls keep lowballing Tory support, it’s either for a reason that’s hard to fix (e.g. making samples more representative) or that whichever methodological flaws present in particular years happen to favour the Conservatives.

Either way, this should caution us against mentally adding 3–4 points for the Tories to polls we see. Pollsters may or may not have managed to fix their failings from 2015, but they’ve certainly tried — which is why individuals polls and forecasts now suggest everything from a hung parliament to a Tory landslide.

“Pundits are always wrong”/ “The underdogs will win”

Conversely, it would be hasty (and wishful thinking for Labour supporters) to assume that Labour will benefit from a systematic polling error as part of some sort of underdog narrative.

The Brexit-Trump one-two punch was a good lesson in critically evaluating conventional political wisdom. But some pundits have the wrong takeaway — take for example the big worry that Marine Le Pen would win the French presidential election, despite Emmanuel Macron’s crushing lead in the polls. He won by nearly two to one against Le Pen.

It’s also worth noting, again, that while Trump and Brexit confounded political expectations, the polls weren’t oblivious to them. Per FiveThirtyEight:

“In the U.K. last year, pundits and punters were irrationally confident of a “Remain” victory in the Brexit vote, even though polls showed it only barely ahead of “Leave.” In the U.S., they ignored how much the race had tightened in the final weeks of the campaign and data that showed Trump would likely do better in the Electoral College than the popular vote. In the French presidential election last month, the conventional wisdom was irrationally worried about a Marine Le Pen victory even though she trailed Emmanuel Macron by 20 to 25 percentage points. In fact, it was Macron who beat his polls, winning by 32 points.”

If Labour pulls off an upset, then, it won’t be because of some law of political punditry. It’ll be because the polls are wrong, and very significantly so. And that’s not a given.


Given all the uncertainties here, meaningful analyses will probably have to wait until the actual results are out. We cannot fully evaluate Labour’s surge until we know where the dust has settled — did they increase their vote share, or their vote totals? Did they win or lose seats, and where? What was youth 18–24 turnout like?

If you want a prediction for which government you’ll wake up to on Friday, just stick with the exit polls — they’re your best bet.

Nicholas is a law graduate, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in international public policy.








Learning from the past… and Donald Trump

by Nicholas Wong

There are two broad narratives about Donald Trump’s election last November. The first is the nuts-and-bolts story of how he exploited a narrow path to victory in the United States’ Electoral College. The second is the story about the man: how a loud, anti-PC, strong-headed outsider beat the odds to win an election.

Unsurprisingly, the second story’s more exciting. And it naturally has people looking for parallels ― who’s the Donald Trump of Malaysia, for example? Who’s the unlikely newcomer who will break through entrenched political roadblocks and bring in a new government through sheer force of personality?

It’s an especially tempting thought experiment for Malaysians looking for an end to the gridlock keeping the current administration in power, and for those looking to make lemonade out of Trump’s election.

But Malaysia already had a Donald Trump and his name is Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s fourth prime minister ruled from 1981 to 2003 ― 22 long years ― during which he remade Malaysia. And his tenure should serve as a warning for those hoping a similar strongman will emerge to smash through our gridlock by force.

Superficially, the two have a lot in common. Like Trump, part of Mahathir’s charisma comes from his plain-speaking, straight-talking style. The man took a laissez-faire approach to political correctness (and facts) ― like suggesting the 9/11 attacks were staged (“If they can make Avatar, they can make anything”) or that “the Jews rule this world by proxy.”

And where Trump’s campaign had some nationalist overtones, a huge plank of Mahathir’s legacy was his strident anti-West nationalism. He played on a post-colonial underdog mentality through a more abrasive, adversarial foreign policy ― resulting in risky moves like the Buy British Last campaign.

Beyond that, the comparisons get murkier. It’s still early days for Trump, so a meaningful comparison of policy is difficult. Mahathir, for example, was sometimes capable of balancing his international saber-rattling with pragmatism ― most famously, he inked a secret security agreement with the US in 1984 that allowed for significant military co-operation between the two countries, even as he claimed to be non-aligned and continued to criticise American military presence in the region publicly. It remains to be seen if Trump can do the same.

The truly meaningful comparison, however, is that both represented leadership centred around producing results and chasing a vision single-mindedly. It’s the Apple of politics: “[Steve Jobs] made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.”

Similarly, in the strongman leadership styles of Trump and Mahathir, we take for granted that the decisiveness and boldness mean substance and competence. And it’s a dangerous cult to buy into.

We might be looking for someone, anyone who could just make headway with this current situation. But at what cost? Trump was elected to make the government work for people who felt left behind. But critics of the current government are looking to boot out an authoritarian leader ― so it makes little sense to do that by electing another authoritarian.

Now that Mahathir has taken up arms against the government and quit Umno (again), I wonder if some think he’s the man to unite a splintered Opposition and oust the government, as Anwar Ibrahim tried to with Pakatan Rakyat.

Anyone who thinks so should be careful. Anwar led the charge from a multiracial party, on a relatively progressive platform of fighting corruption and abuse of power. Mahathir’s new party, on the other hand, is a racist one that looks to defeat Umno by beating it at its own game.

He was also the man who constructed Malaysia’s predicament today. He destroyed the judiciary’s independence, hobbling its ability to hold the government to account. He built and entrenched a capitalist class that allowed for rampant graft and cronyism, giving way to scandal after scandal. He wielded power oppressively, notoriously detaining dozens without trial during the Ops Lalang crackdown.

And of course, he planned poorly for succession. He went through three credible deputies ― Musa Hitam left, Ghafar Baba was defeated, and Anwar Ibrahim was fired ― before finally handing power off to the weakest (and hence not a threat to him) ― Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Then he turned on Abdullah, paving the way for Najib Razak to take the reins and the rest is history.

So trusting Mahathir ― or anyone similar ― is a mistake. Dismantling the system that produced him is more important. Will a new government influenced by Mahathir give the judiciary back its independence and draw fair electoral boundaries? Or, be afraid that an opposition Barisan Nasional will “threaten” reforms, will it simply stack the courts with its own judges, and gerrymander seats to its favour?

Whether it’s the Mahathir of 2017, who’s now in the Opposition, or some other Trump-like figure, it’s a bad idea. The Mahathir of 1981-2003 has already shown us why.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (27 February 2017)

Looking for a Malaysian Trump

by Nicholas Wong

In Malaysia, Trump has been compared to Ibrahim Ali, an experienced practitioner of racialist politics. That’s a pretty superficial comparison.

It’s more useful to think of Trump in terms of how and why he won. Don’t believe the headlines. Trump didn’t pull off a landslide win ― he lost the popular vote by over two million ballots.

His Electoral College win isn’t bad (306/538), but lower than average historically. He also has historically low approval ratings ― his first presidential job approval ratings sat at about 45 per cent, the lowest of any new president all the way back to Harry Truman in 1945.

What Trump did was that he successfully ran an insurgent campaign inside the Republican party ― winning not by a landslide, but by taking advantage of a crowded field.

He then successfully co-opted Republican establishment support, which secured rank-and-file support for his insurgency.  He pulled out a minority victory by winning enough battleground states, and narrowly flipping three previously Democratic-voting states.

And he tapped  into campaign issues that resonated with the “right” voters ― immigration and border security, Islamic extremism, international trade deals.

And he did so with zero personal political experience. The rules Trump really broke were unwritten rules the political elite and pundit class took for granted. His weaknesses were strengths. Lousy speeches and outbursts weren’t “unpresidential”, they were conversationalist and relatable.

Zero political experience didn’t make him “unqualified”, it put him outside the “establishment.” His one-per center, government-lobbying background didn’t put him in the establishment, it was his management and business experience.

In this aspect, Trump isn’t new. Andrew Jackson had a “pugnacious temper — and a readiness to use a gun — that makes the hyperactive Trump look like a choir boy.”

Bill Clinton and John Kennedy were infamous womanisers – and Clinton has been accused of rape and sexual harassment. Mitt Romney ran on his background in business. And Ronald Reagan was a celebrity turned governor turned president.

The election of The Donald wasn’t an overwhelming, paradigm-changing win. It was a combination of smarts and luck that exploited a narrow path to victory ― but it did it well.

What would a Trump campaign look like in Malaysia?

So if anyone wanted to put the Trump playbook into action in Malaysia, how would they do it?

Malaysia’s opposition parties have the same problems Democrats face today ― they have popular national support, but their voters are concentrated in fewer, larger constituencies.

They both need stronger support from voters in the majority ethnic group (Malay/Bumiputera Malaysians and white Americans). So you can see the appeal of trying to replicate and co-opt the Trump playbook.

But Barisan Nasional has already been using it in recent elections. For the past two elections, the coalition has held on to power by relying on Malay and Bumiputera votes and playing up divisive racial and religious issues.

Worse, they’ve institutionalised their support ― through gerrymandering and malapportionment, control over traditional media, and weakening democratic institutions. In the US, at least, the judiciary is independent, traditional media aren’t government mouthpieces and electoral districting is harder to manipulate.

The Opposition has two choices then. They can “outsell” BN’s strategy by co-opting its message ― like a company undercutting prices by selling cheaper mp3 players to steal consumers.

This means campaigning on a platform of preserving Malay and Islamic supremacy, and trying to perpetuate the same siege mentality BN has been happy to encourage.

For obvious reasons, there are flaws to this strategy. PAS has long been running on an Islamic platform (in fact, Umno co-opted its sharper focus on Islam from PAS) to some success. And it’s definitely what Parti Pribumi Bersatu has been shooting for as an alternative to Umno.

But the institutionalised problems like media control and a lack of resources make it difficult for any party like Pribumi or PAS to really maximise this. It also risks alienating other opposition voters, many of whom no doubt want to move away from explicit racial politics.

The second choice is to steal voters sideways, through a “disruptive” campaign strategy ― the way iPods disrupted the traditional mp3 player industry. This means tapping into specific Malay and Bumiputera concerns the government hasn’t or can’t.

Rather than making corruption, civil liberties and anti-racist messaging the main thrust of its pitch to BN voters, a campaign that speaks to their more immediate socio-economic concerns may make more headway.

BN has couched it in terms of Malay economic strength, Bumiputera rights. But maybe personal concerns about poverty or inequality don’t have to be tied into race or politics.

Maybe it’s about questioning the government’s record on making trade deals and globalisation work for all Malaysians, instead of just the more affluent ones. Or questioning immigration policies that drive down working class wages. Or even tearing apart the government’s own betrayal of working and middle-class Malays in favour of 1 per cent crony, friends-of-government Malays.

This is nothing new to the Malaysian opposition. Many have already raised these exact points. These are not silver bullets. The same problems with Malaysian democracy remain ― even with the right message, will it get to voters in rural or inaccessible BN heartlands? Will they trust opposition leaders they’ve been less exposed to? Will it be enough to overcome gerrymandering? And even if it’s successful ― will the government invoke laws like the NSC Act, SOSMA and POTA to clamp down on unfavourable election results?

Beyond this problem, other questions remain. Is it just the message, or the messaging? Trump didn’t just raise issues, he delivered them in inflammatory, unapologetically crude ways sometimes. Is it possible to highlight issues with immigration policy without resorting to nativism or playing up xenophobia? Can you win votes that way?

Or is it about having personality ― the right leader to go with the right message? Barisan Nasional has already been playing by the Trump playbook. It also had its own Trump figure ― his name was Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (21 February 2017)