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.

Become a Patron!

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:

Liked it? Take a second to support the Tally Room on Patreon!

About Ben Raue

Ben Raue is the founder and author of the Tally Room.If you like this post, please consider donating to support the Tally Room.