Even before the small tsunami of opinion polls crashed down upon them on Monday, the major parties were already attempting to twist how the media was predicting who would win the upcoming by-elections on Super Saturday.
Expectations management is the name of the game at this point, with less than a week to go until polling day.
It’s always preferable to be romping home, as Rebekha Sharkie from the Centre Alliance seems to be doing in the Adelaide seat of Mayo.
However the major parties will also try to maximise their primary vote by saying the contest is tight, or too close to call. So we can expect to hear everyone lay claim to being the by-election underdog before the week is done.
This time at least, the opinion polls seem to be helping the majors in this endeavour.
Labor and the Coalition are really only competing in two of the five by-election contests: the working-class seat of Longman just north of Brisbane, and the rural seat of Braddon in Tasmania.
Both seats are currently held by Labor, but could change hands with a relatively small shift in the vote. According to Galaxy polls published on Monday, both could go either way.
Galaxy has the government slightly ahead on the two-party preferred vote in Longman (51 per cent to Labor’s 49 per cent), even though the LNP’s primary vote has dropped five points since the 2016 election. The difference this time is that preferences from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) are expected to flow back to the LNP, and PHON voters have doubled to 18 per cent since the last federal poll.
Meanwhile in Braddon, Galaxy has found Labor’s primary vote is unchanged since the last election, and that of the Liberals has improved slightly, producing a 50-50 two-party preferred vote after preferences are allocated.
So if the major parties want voters to think the contests are tight, they couldn’t have asked for better news. However, opinion polls conducted on individual seats have been seriously wrong in the past.
That’s not to say national polls don’t get it wrong – for of course they do – but the greater frequency of national polls makes it easier to spot a rogue poll when it occurs.
The increased number of polls also makes it easier to spot a trend, which is what seems to be happening for Malcolm Turnbull and his government right now.
In addition to the Galaxy by-election polls, Fairfax’s monthly Ipsos poll was published on Monday.
In all respects but one, the poll would have been like Christmas for the PM.
The bad news was that, despite a four-point surge in the Coalition’s primary vote and a one-point drop in Labor’s, the Ipsos poll still predicted a two-party preferred vote of 51:49 in Labor’s favour.
Yes, that’s another losing poll for the PM. But the result makes Ipsos the last of the three major opinion polls – Newspoll, Essential and Ipsos – to produce this result, thereby confirming that a tightening of the vote is happening around the nation and not just in Longman and Braddon.
Like the other polls, the Ipsos results also suggest voters are starting to get over their disappointment with Malcolm Turnbull.
At 57 per cent, the PM is 27 percentage points ahead of his counterpart as preferred PM, Bill Shorten. Mr Turnbull’s net satisfaction rating is 17, while Mr Shorten’s is almost the opposite at -16.
While it would be foolish to attribute what looks like an opinion poll recovery for Mr Turnbull to any one factor, it’s worth noting that Tony Abbott’s capacity to cause trouble for his successor has diminished in recent times.
It would appear the conservatives that have resisted Mr Abbott’s calls for rebellion continue to believe that, while Mr Turnbull may not be their preferred leader, he still has the best chance of keeping them in government at the next federal election.
Of course expectations could change, particularly if the government does badly in Longman or Braddon.
But if the Coalition does well, even winning one or both seats, the temptation will be strong to capitalise on that success by calling an early federal election.
Then Malcolm Turnbull would have to manage a very different type of voter expectation.
The one he created by insisting the election wouldn’t be held until early next year.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles.