Has NZ First lost the balance of power? 

Most polls give NZ First the balance of power. But Winston Peters was also the presumptive kingmaker in 2014.  And yet National won a comfortable victory on election night. What are the chances of Peters missing out again? Probably better than you think.

Statistician Peter Elis has calculated the probability of different election outcomes. Elis gives National a 33% probability of governing without NZ First. In contrast, the probability of NZ First holding the balance of power is 58%. It’s worth remembering that Nate Silver gave Donald Trump a 29% chance of winning the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. So, the odds are decent.

An upcoming book on the 2014 election argues that the single most important issue for voters was the economy. But it wasn’t policy that decided the election. It was the voters’ perception of competence and effective leadership. This is consistent with research from Britain that has found economic performance and leadership image are strong predictors of voting behaviour.

In 2014, there was no contest between National and Labour on the question of economic performance. Such perceptions are based on voters’ own subjective judgments about the state of the economy. I would argue that perceptions are largely the same in 2017. The strongest evidence of this comes from the Roy Morgan Government Confidence Rating and the Reid Research/Newshub PM Performance Rating.

In July, Roy Morgan reported that 63% of New Zealanders felt the country was heading in the right direction. The last Reid Research poll found that 51% thought English performed well as Prime Minister. So, while English might have the “personality of a rock”, most people see him as competent and effective.

There is another factor that could help National. In last week’s UMR poll, support for NZ First halved from 16% to 8%. The Reid Research poll also found a substantial decline in NZ First support. But these voters aren’t just going to Labour. They are going to National as well.

This makes sense given the composition of NZ First support. In the 2014 New Zealand Election Study, 22% of NZ First voters voted for Labour in 2011 and 15% voted for National. Together this represents more than a third of the NZ First vote.

Should NZ First fail to offset the loss of support to Labour and National, it could find itself perilously close to the 5% threshold. Of course, Winston Peters’ hold on Northland would ensure NZ First is returned to Parliament. But it would be a devastating result.

Furthermore, Winston Peters’ status as king/queenmaker could now be in jeopardy. NZ First defectors might ensure that Bill English leads National to an upset victory on election night. If that happens, you read it here first.

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