Newspoll regularly asks voters whether, in the next six months, their standard of living will improve, stay the same, or get worse. Their results always show that supporters of the political party in opposition federally are more pessimistic than supporters of the governing party.
As I noted a couple of years ago, at most times the causes of this are hard to disentangle. Some of it is probably real. Living standards of opposition supporters may genuinely be negatively affected by the government’s policies – eg Labor supporters relying on handouts that may not be so readily available under the Coalition; Liberal supporters suffering from increased tax and regulation under Labor. And people whose living standards have declined may blame the government, and therefore appear as supporters of the opposition in the polls.
These factors are least likely to apply as a new government begins; voters cannot blame its past policies for their current problems, and the inevitably slow-moving machinery of government means that few objective changes are likely to occur within six months. But as a Newspoll conducted in mid-December, and reported in the Australian this morning, shows this doesn’t stop reversals in who feels optimistic about their future living standards and who feels pessimistic.
In July 2007, 25% of Coalition supporters thought their living standards would improve in the next six months, compared to 17% of Labor supporters. In December 2007, these figures were almost reversed: only 16% of Coalition supporters were optimistic, but 24% of Labor supporters. Labor optimists are at their highest figure since December 1995, the last Newspoll standard of living survey before Labor lost office in March 1996.
On the Coalition side, there was a huge leap in pessimism between July and December. In July, only 10% thought that their living standards over the next six months would get worse, but by December that had more than doubled to 23%. Not since 1994 have Coalition supporters been so pessimistic. The drop in Labor pessimists isn’t nearly as dramatic as the increase in Coalition pessimists; down four percentage points to 14%. But that’s the lowest figure since the Keating era.
Do strong partisans of each party incorporate who is in power into their judgments of trends in their standard of living (do, for example, Howard haters feel their standard of living is higher now that he is off playing golf)? Or is it just that survey respondents draw on their partisan allegiance to help them answer a question that doesn’t always have an obvious easy answer (standard of living is a vague concept; personal circumstances can change in ways that are not fully predictable)?
Perhaps it is a bit of both; but another reminder that answers to questions that ask survey respondents to compare over time should be treated with particular caution.