How the MaltaToday survey got it right but underestimated Robert Abela’s surge

The MaltaToday survey on Saturday was the first published poll to give Abela the lead in the leadership race, although he overshot the highest support margin by 1.3 points

Robert Abela led a grassroots campaign
Robert Abela led a grassroots campaign

Surveys provide a snapshot of particular moments and the last photo we captured of the Labour leadership race gave Robert Abela the edge over his rival.

The MaltaToday survey, which was held between Wednesday and Friday, gave Abela 51.5%.

It was the first published survey carried out by a media house – not one that was leaked to it – that gave Abela the lead in a five-week campaign that saw him start as the underdog.

The survey was published on Saturday at 8pm after polling closed.

The margin of error of the MaltaToday survey stood at 5.1%, which means that Abela’s support oscillated between 46.4% and 56.6%. Fearne’s support ranged between 43.4% and 53.6%.

It was this margin of error that prompted MaltaToday to call it a “tight race”.

How does this compare to the actual result?

The official result shows that Abela captured 57.9% of the vote, against Fearne’s 42.1%.

It was not a tight race and the actual result was closer to the upper margin of support registered in the MaltaToday survey, albeit just outside the margin of error by 1.3 points.

So yes, we did get it right but we also underestimated Abela’s surge.

There may be multiple reasons why the survey failed to give Abela a more convincing win.

The Labour MP started the campaign as the underdog.

With the attempt to install Fearne as leader with no contest going haywire after Abela jumped ship, the deputy prime minister appeared to be the natural choice of the establishment.

Fearne projected himself as the next prime minister with the backing of almost all Cabinet ministers.

Within this context, Labour members who worked in the various ministries or at district level may have felt pressured to toe the line and support Fearne.

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However, with this being a historic occasion to choose the party’s next leader, many members may have felt the pressure constituted undue influence.

This probably pushed Abela’s supporters into silence, causing them to respond with a Don’t Know, when asked who they wanted as prime minister. This is a phenomenon in situations where the answer may be perceived as not being the popular one.

However, Abela’s upward trajectory was palpable on the ground, especially after his performances on Xarabank and the One TV debate.

This may have emboldened his supporters over the last week and this was captured in the MaltaToday survey although not to the extent of the reality on the ground.

A first survey conducted between 2 and 3 January found that 58.9% of members did not know who to vote for. This dropped to 44.8% a week later.

This can be interpreted as more members having made up their mind or decided to declare their voting intention. Abela was the net beneficiary of this shift, putting him ahead of Fearne in Saturday’s survey.

The reality turned out to be a more comfortable lead for Abela than the numbers were telling us.