Friday, August 11, 2017

Polls apart

If a week is a long time in politics, then this past week has been a year for New Zealand politics. This week the NZ Labour Party and its leader, Jacinda Ardern, soared in the latest opinion poll from the same company whose poll helped to seal the fate of the previous party leader. Labour’s position now is dramatically different from what it was a week earlier, and it is now within striking distance of changing the government. It’s a dramatic turnaround in only one week.

Labour’s turnaround IS dramatic. In the Newshub/Reid Research from the end of July, Labour was on 24.1%. That was less that Labour received in the 2014 election (25.13%) and in 2011 (27.48), both of which were considered disastrous at the time.

Reid’s August 8 poll, however, had Labour soaring to 33.1%. National, which was on 45.2% in the earlier poll, dropped to 44.4%. The 0.8 point fall for National would be statistically insignificant by itself, but this is the lowest point for National since Reid Research started polling for 3 News/Newshub back in February 2009 (for the 2011 election). In poll analysis, trends matter as much or more than actual numbers, and if National continues to drop, even if only slight amounts at a time, that could spell real trouble for them.

One thing I haven’t seen any news outlet mention is that the current split between Labour and National is almost exactly the same as the general election result in 2008, when National won government from Labour. That year’s result was 33.99% for Labour and 44.93% for National, who went on to form a minority government. This means that Labour is closer to being able to win government than at any time since the 2005 election (when Labour won re-election to government with 41.1% to National’s 39.1%).

The votes that Labour gained came primarily from the Greens, who lost more than a third of their support (from 13% down to 8.3%), and New Zealand First, who lost nearly a third of theirs (from 13% to 9.2%). The minor parties all stayed basically the same.

The dramatic rise in Labour’s fortunes is clearly the result of changing leaders. We know this, first, because disaffected Labour voters tend to go primarily to the Greens and NZ First, and they’re “coming home”. This is especially seen in the “preferred prime minister” beauty contest in which Jacinda Ardern polled 26.3%, a huge rise of 7.6 points. That’s impressive all in its own, but she’s now statistically in a dead heat with National Party leader Bill English, who is on 27.7%. NZ First leader Winston Peters, who has been the second most preferred prime minister for months, is now in third place, down 1.9 points to 10%. This is the highest poll rating for a Labour Party Leader in years, higher than any leader since Helen Clark was Prime Minister, prior to the 2008 general election.

All of that is why it’s simplistic to suggest that Labour is doing well only because of the troubles the Green Party had in recent weeks. The Greens certainly were hurt by co-leader Metiria Turei’s admission of having committed benefit fraud a couple decades ago, followed by her resignation as co-leader of her party this week [see: “Timeline: Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei's downfall” from RNZ]. However, because Labour also took a large amount of support from NZ First (and a tiny bit from National), and because Jacinda Ardern’s personal popularity soared, this is a case of Labour doing well, with the Greens’ troubles possibly expanding the growth in support beyond what Labour would have had anyway.

However, in order to win Government, Labour needs to take votes from National, not from the Greens or NZ First, both of whom are potential coalition partners. In other words, the centre-left needs to grow its share of the vote, not just rearrange it. In 2002, National’s vote collapsed as its voters just stayed home, giving it its worst-ever election defeat (Bill English was the leader at that time, too). There’s no evidence that National could face that sort of shellacking this year, however, continuing questions about its handling of their MP Todd Barclay’s mistreatment of a worker have the potential to weaken National’s vote, and the fact it’s been in government for nine long years means that some voters will be bored with National and wanting change.

The main job here is for Labour and the Greens. Labour needs to focus on taking votes from National, some of which are definitely winnable (actually, NZ First could do this, too). The Greens need to regroup and recover from Metiria Turei stepping down as co-leader. For a coalition government to be left-leaning, the Greens must be stronger than NZ First. Labour can’t do that for the Greens—they have to prove themselves to the electorate. It's important to note that even now, at 8.3%, the Greens are polling significantly higher than their results in 2002, 2005 or 2008 (7%, 5.3%, and 6.2%, respectively). So, this a definitely doable.

It’s 40 days until the 2017 General Election, and the real campaign hasn’t actually begun yet (and won’t until after Parliament rises). The campaignING, however, is in full swing, and as it picks up pace, and when the TV commercials begin, we’ll probably see more movement in the polls. I doubt they’ll be as volatile as we saw over the past week, but movement is inevitable—and we can’t rule out big changes.

One week is a long time in politics. The election is six weeks from tomorrow: Not all that long, but with the week we’ve just been through, right now that sounds like an eternity.

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