What happened to SA Best?


This is quite a long analysis of the SA Best performance at yesterday’s state election. If you stick with it I’ve included a chart comparing SA Best to the Nick Xenophon Team in 2016, and at the end there’s a map! Enjoy.

Expectations were very high for Nick Xenophon’s SA Best party, with earlier polling suggesting the party had the potential to break apart the two-party system in South Australia. Yet their support in the polls dropped away as we got to election day and did not manage to win any lower house seats.

It’s worth a reminder that the SA Best vote is pretty good for a minor party. The party is sitting on 13.7% in the House of Assembly, and 18.9% in the Legislative Council. That will be enough to win two seats in the Legislative Council, while the Greens will likely only manage one seat and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives will likely miss out entirely.

There was some polling in late 2017 which put SA Best neck-and-neck with the major parties, but it now appears that these polls were outliers. A Newspoll in late 2017 had the new party on 32% of the primary vote, while both major parties were stuck below 30%. One other Morgan poll put SA Best on 28.5%. If you exclude those two polls, no other poll had the party on anything more than 22%, which isn’t that much more than the final upper house vote of 19%.

The public narrative suggests that SA Best suffered from a polling collapse, but I’m not so sure. There definitely was some decline – there was a 4-point drop in the last Newspoll, and that was 3 points above the actual result – but I doubt the figures in the high 20s or low 30s, which implied SA Best wiping out a major party and taking over ten seats, were ever anything other than outliers.

Even though there was only a small amount of polling, SA Best had a lot of hype, which may have contributed to Nick Xenophon’s decision to resign from the Senate and contest the seat of Hartley, or the late surge in the number of SA Best candidates, until they were running in 36 out of 47 seats.

Read on below the fold for more about SA Best.

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Prior to the election I used a breakdown of the NXT Senate vote at the 2016 federal election by state seat to attempt to predict the SA Best vote. So how did this perform?

The model worked reasonably well. This graph compares the vote in the 36 contested seats to the Senate vote, and the trend is very clear.

There were a few outliers, including Xenophon’s seat of Hartley, where he polled only 2% less than his party polled in the Senate in 2016, but in most areas there was a drop in the SA Best vote relative to 2016, and the drop was relatively consistent.

Nick Xenophon’s various political machines have tended to produce relatively even votes across the state. This gives him a broad base to win Senate and upper house seats, but it also means that he could poll quite well and struggle to win single-member electorates.

This trend hurt SA Best badly last night – the party’s vote of almost 14% was only enough to just crack 25% in three seats.

The party was very effective at breaking into the top two, but in most cases this didn’t give them a chance of winning. SA Best are currently sitting in second in twelve seats. In those twelve seats, the gap between the second-placed SA Best candidate and the leading candidate ranged from 14.8% in Hartley to 35.5% in MacKillop. Those are massive gaps to close on preferences. A more lopsided vote count would’ve allowed the party to come first on primary votes, or at least come a close second, in a handful of seats, while polling poorly in many other seats, or perhaps not even running.

This makes me wonder how much effort was put into concentrating SA Best’s vote in a few key seats. Apart from Xenophon himself, no other candidates stood out as leading figures, and I didn’t see any evidence (admittedly from afar) of the party picking a handful of seats to ensure the party at least won a few seats. Perhaps it was just hubris, believing the party had a real shot at winning, say, ten or twenty seats and forming the opposition. If you really believe that you’d want to spread out your resources, not concentrate them.

This is the only way I can explain Xenophon’s choice of Hartley. The seat ranked twentieth on the list of NXT seats from the 2016 election. I get that it was his own local electorate, but it put a lot of faith in his party’s ability to sustain a very high vote, or his ability to push his personal vote well ahead of his party. The chart above suggests that Xenophon did benefit from a substantial personal vote, something that would’ve been enough to win if he’d contested a seat like Finniss, Heysen or Chaffey, but it won’t be enough in Hartley.

The last thing to note is that this is Nick Xenophon’s first attempt at contesting a lower house seat. He won his first seat in the Legislative Council on a tiny vote in 1997 thanks to favourable preference deals. He was re-elected to the Legislative Council in 2006, and then to the Senate in 2007, 2013 and 2016, each time with a massive vote closer in scale to the major parties than to other minor parties.

Nick Xenophon was on the ballot across South Australia at his last four elections – not this time. I’ve long wondered how well his parties would perform without him on the ballot. Xenophon-endorsed tickets at the 2010 and 2014 state elections did much less well without his candidacy, and I suspect that is a key factor in the drop in vote. It could also reflect the fact that state lower house MPs have much more profile than upper house MPs, and the major parties prioritise putting those people forward. It’s easier to vote for Nick Xenophon over an anonymous Labor ticket (particularly when a favourite lead candidate won’t have trouble winning re-election) than to vote for an SA Best candidate over a known local MP.

Finally, here is a map showing the relative vote for SA Best in the 36 seats they contested:

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  1. That map seems eerily similar to the QLD election, where the vote for non-Green third parties was much higher outside the city.

  2. Standing in the seat where he lives seems not to have been the best decision psephologically but it is the correct decision ethically. Candidates should only be able to stand for electorates they live in because groups should be represented by one (or more) of their own and residents of electorates have greater incentive to campaign to improve their own electorates. MPs, MLAs, MHAs and MLCs living outside their electorates is something that seems to happen mainly to poorer urban electorates and they may do a little better if they were represented by one (or more) of their own.

    I do think that and the reporting of the polling that excluded SA Best as an option from voters where they were not running (once candidacies have been finalised), not emphasising that it was a changed methodology from the previous poll may have created or increased a perception that the SA Best vote was falling and that seems to have partly created or increased the reality of a lower SA Best vote.

    Maybe calling the party Xenophon`s SA Best would have helped the vote slightly.

    Xenophon`s history of candidates elected with him may also have reduced the SA Best vote.

  3. A good effort vote wise for a first attempt party even if they did not win any Legislative Assembly seats. A party has to start somewhere.

  4. SA Best 18% in the Council and 13% in the Assembly with 66% of votes counted according to the SA electoral commission.

    The Green were 6% in the Council and 6.6% in the Assembly by comparison and its a senior minor party.

  5. @Tom, why should voters not have the choice as to whether they want a local? Clearly it is a factor voters consider but I don’t see why it should be a hard rule. I don’t see anything unethical about running somewhere you don’t live if you are truthful about it.

  6. Xenophon and his parties have to date been a protest vote; a spanner in the works (especially in the upper house).

    Choosing to present SA Best as a potential party of government, a kingmaker in a minority government scenario, changed the game. Xenophon was expected to present policies outside his pet issues and had to deal with the level of scrutiny that parties of government get rather than stunting independents get. He was asked and repeatedly refused to answer who he’d back in a minority government scenario even though it was really THE key question that voters needed to know before putting his candiates first…. it’s pretty crazy he wanted voters to give him their preferences without knowing whether it would end up invalidating their own preference, basically because he wanted both Labor-leaning and Liberal-leaning voters to support SA-Best and just trust him he’d back their horse if the time came, and I think a great many of both simply decided not to risk it.

    It didn’t help that his candidates often didn’t seem very committed to following Nick’s line. It felt like the second coming of Palmer United, where the candidates were happy to surf off the leader’s profile but were likely to do their own thing if actually elected.

    It’ll be interesting to see if Xenophon continues to work towards the next state election and if so what his strategy will be, or if he returns to focussing on NXT federally.

    If Nick does work towards the state election he has to choose between going for a more general protest vote strategy aimed at upper house seats (like the old Federal Greens) or trying to develop a few key candidates and key policies and focus on a handful of winnable seats and take the risk of alienating some of the more general audience (like the current Federal Greens). I think he’s done his dash at the idea of running as a serious mass party of government.

  7. I’m inclined to think that actually having some real focus in this election has shown up that Nick X really has done absolutely nothing in a decade in politics – he’s run repeatedly on no pokies, got in a position to really sell his vote – and got nothing.

    On the back of that, that not enough people voted for his new vanity project is not surprising.

  8. Hi Ben, Just saw you on Q&A asking a good question.

    Monday night for me is ABC TV all evening with so many good shows.

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