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The Wentworth Project: 'Soft' voters say Spender out-campaigning Sharma but some still weighing decision

By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra
Dave Sharma/Facebook; Allegra Spender/Facebook

The battles in the most high-profile teal seats have become nail-biters, not least because some “soft” voters in these previously safe Liberal heartland electorates are leaving their decisions until very late.

In the third and final round of our Wentworth Project focus group research, done May 11-12, more than half – eight of the 15 participants – had not definitely locked in their voting intention. Of the seven who were very certain, six were for independent Allegra Spender and one for Liberal incumbent Dave Sharma.

The previous few weeks had done little to move voters towards Sharma or the Morrison government. Rather, support had moved towards Spender.

On a two-candidate basis, Spender received nine votes and Sharma six. This compared to a two-candidate breakdown in the first round, done early in the campaign, of eight leaning towards Spender and seven towards Sharma.

“Soft” voters – who’d not firmly decided their vote or were considering switching – were recruited for the three rounds of focus group research. There was only one replacement, between the first and second rounds. The work, sponsored by the University of Canberra’s Centre for Change Governance and The Conversation, was done by Landscape Research.

Focus group research is not predictive, but rather a deep dive into attitudes.

While some of our Wentwoth voters were still hesitating about their final choice, people were sure about one thing – Spender had run a better campaign than Sharma.

Half way through the campaign, in the second round of research, nine of the 15 participants thought Spender had done the better job in the campaign and five judged the two campaigns pretty even. But in the penultimate week before the May 21 election, Spender was seen, hands down, as having the superior campaign. All bar one person said so.

Spender has gained momentum and there is a mood for change. She is “out and about everywhere,” (female disability support worker, 51). “Every time I see Dave Sharma he’s doing something cringeworthy […] everyone must have seen that Indian home diner on Oxford street. I think it was completely staged” (male fraud analyst, 30).

A retired female health worker found it “quite a powerful thing when you see all these [Spender] posters on people’s fences because that’s very much standing up and saying ‘this is the person I support’”.

“She’s gone to the trouble of engaging a lot of the volunteers for social and very publicly-visible gathering, […] and I think that pulls people together and they talk. It’s a very subtle way of infiltrating the community” (retired female state public servant, 68).

Sharma is still in the fight but only has a week to shore up waverers or change the minds of those who are only somewhat sure they’ll vote for Spender.

Some voters seemed to have little awareness their vote for Spender and the loss of the seat could help deliver government to Labor.

The concept of minority government and the need for crossbench support to guarantee supply was poorly understood. When explained, these soft voters and switched Liberal-turned Spender voters put the independent on notice.

Eleven of the 15 want her, if she wins, to support a Coalition government for supply in the event of a hung parliament. They indicated they would feel betrayed if she supported Labor. “If she was to do that, I won’t be overly impressed” (a male Spender voter, 52).

But the spectre of a hung parliament, coupled with Spender refusing to say who she would support, is an ongoing concern for some, and is having an impact on the way they are thinking about voting.

“That’s what’s making me wonder whether I should maybe just throw my support behind Dave, because it worries me that if it is going to be a hung parliament it’s going to be Labor and Greens with independents backing them, so it’s a Labor-Green government which is exactly what happened under the Gillard government” (female part-time receptionist, 48).

Some agreed with the proposition the Coalition was already a minority government, with the Liberals having to negotiate with the Nationals and different factions within the Liberals.

“They’re pretty much hamstrung by the extremes that they have in the Liberal and National party which is making it hard for them to get a lot of their legislation through” (female health worker, 63).

The national campaign is seen as close and something of a race to the bottom in a policy free zone. These voters were divided on who between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese has run the better campaign so far, with seven giving it to Morrison and the Coalition and eight to Albanese and Labor.

“[The Liberals] have had fewer slip ups and a consistent message about the economy,” (male IT worker, 34). “I sort of feel like Albanese is more sincere but less polished and I think that works for him” (male insurance worker, 57).

With polls pointing to a Labor win, some welcome the prospect of change, but others have concerns about Labor’s ability to manage the economy. “Higher costs, higher inflation, higher interest rates.” (semi-retired male, 70).

While confident a returned Coalition would be a plus for economic management, some fear a win would empower Morrison to continue without changing his ways.

“I’m concerned about the underlying religious influence and the Nationals’ influence – they are overly conservative” (retired female state public servant, 68).

These Wentworth voters hope a Coalition loss would be seen as a big wake up call. There is a strong intent to punish the Liberal party because they feel the moderate Liberals aren’t being listened to.

They believe responsibility for a Liberal loss would be squarely at Morrison’s feet and he must bear the brunt of the fallout. They also consider what the Liberal party needs to do to make itself more relevant to voters.

“For me it’s about taking ownership and accountability. You know, during COVID was a key example where Scott Morrison just kept blaming the states. You need to be a leader and you need to stand up” (female part time accountant, 39).

“The buck has to stop with him as leader” (male insurance worker, 57).

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Dive Deeper:
Liberal member for Wentworth Dave Sharma again under threat from an independent
The marginal Liberal seat of Wentworth in Sydney's east is once again under threat from an independent. And the challenge…
As Labor issues dominate the election campaign, Morrison struggles
If Albanese wins this election, Morrison’s inability to talk about his preferred subjects could turn out to be a key…
Undecided, uninterested, unsure: major parties vie to flip long-held seats of Reid and Parramatta
Scott Morrison’s name may be a negative in the marginal seats of the inner west, but that doesn’t necessarily translate…
New poll predicts Allegra Spender will win Wentworth from Liberal MP Dave Sharma
Spender-backed poll says independent will win on preference flows but is at odds with YouGov polling on the electorate
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
I’m excited by the teal independents – but where’s the racial and ethnic diversity?
No one can seriously think the only people who care about climate change are white
Liberal Party 'warms up' with final countdown underway
Scott Morrison has made housing a central part of the Liberal Party's official launch.
Get all your news in one place