Shopping with values

The first televised debate between National Party leader Bill English and Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern has set the tone for the rest of the campaign. The defining moment came early on when moderator Mike Hosking challenged English and Ardern on their fiscal priorities. Juxtaposed on the stage were two distinct political philosophies.

“It’s not about throwing big money at every problem,” English declared. The question of tax evoked the most passion from him. As Minister of Finance, English balanced the budget and reduced Crown debt. He goes into this election making the case for personal tax cuts.  National would give more money back to those who had earned it. Labour, he said, was proposing to take $1,000 a year from a meatworker in Horotiu to make university “a bit cheaper” for law students.

The rhetoric is consistent with the political traditions of the National Party. The dual virtues of hard-work and personal responsibility have been its lodestar for 81 years. Formed in a coalition of farmers and businessmen, National fashioned itself as a pragmatic conservative party during the 1930s. Its main opponent, the Labour Party, offered a more altruistic approach to government.

The late Professor Bob Chapman once described humanitarianism as a ‘lingering chord’ in New Zealand politics. It was that chord which Ardern struck in her first leader’s debate. “I refuse to stand by while children are sleeping in cars,” she affirmed to the nation. “I refuse to accept that we have the lowest home ownership rates in 60 years.”

Challenged on the issue of capital gains, Ardern stuck to her position of not ruling a new tax in or out. Labour would do what was necessary to end the housing crisis. Her emphasis was on values, not policy-specifics. Then came the most memorable line of the debate. “People can’t go shopping with your values!” English interjected. Families needed to budget for groceries. They needed to know what a vote for Labour would cost them.

But will uncertainty about household finances dissuade the Horotiu meatworker from voting Labour? Until now, the National-led Government has relied on its strong economic record to maintain the confidence of voters.

Recent scholarship by Jack Vowles, Hilde Coffé and Jennifer Curtin confirms the economy was the most salient issue in 2014.  However, voters’ subjective judgements about the relative competence of leaders and parties mattered more than policy or ideological positioning.  It was the classic ‘valence’ election in which there was no great ideological divide between voters.

The 2017 election could be very different. Rather than judging the parties’ relative competence at managing the economy, voters may look to their values instead. The choice for many voters could lie between tax cuts or the more equitable distribution of wealth. Will the lingering chord of humanitarianism rally them to Labour? Or do they prefer the rugged individualism of National?

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.

On the “incredibly explosive” Newshub poll

Newshub political editor Patrick Gower claims the latest Reid Research poll is ‘incredibly explosive’. Why? There has been a swing of 9 percentage points to Labour. They are now on 33%. And more dramatically, Jacinda Ardern is within a point of Bill English as preferred PM.  Her predecessor never got above single digits.

Gower would tell you these are trends not seen in a decade.

Well, that is one interpretation. I would argue that these numbers don’t suggest a dramatic shift in party support. The fact is Labour was polling up to 33% under Andrew Little. They began the year averaging 30%.

It was months of negative publicity that caused Labour to plummet in the polls. By contrast, the party has enjoyed a week of positive media coverage since Ardern became leader. So maybe we shouldn’t read too much into the polling (yet).

But if there is a ‘Jacinda effect’, it has done nothing to weaken National. With 44% support, the Nats are no worse off than they were before the dramatic events of last week. In fact, National continues to outpoll Labour and the Greens.

The real significance of the polling could be in the decline of NZ First and the Greens. Both parties have slipped under 10%. While the slump in support for the Greens will no doubt be attributed to the Turei scandal, the loss of support for NZ First is more intriguing.

There is one thing that hasn’t changed though. The media narrative that Winston Peters is king or queenmaker will continue right up til election day.

First poll after Labour leadership change

Noted has published details of a ‘snap’ online poll conducted for The Listener as part of its Election Barometer series. The poll has a sample size of 1175 and is representative of the national population. Respondents were canvassed between 5pm Tuesday 1 August and 11:30am Wednesday 2 August.

It is the first major poll to capture public opinion in the aftermath of the Labour leadership change. As it did in June, The Listener has chosen to include undecided voters in the result. The numbers are as follow: National 39%, Labour 23%, Greens 12% and NZ First 8%.

But it is misleading to include the undecided in these results. If the undecided are removed, the picture we get is more consistent with other polling:

National 45% (+1)
Labour 27% (+3)
Greens 14% (-2)
NZ First 9% (-1)

So as of yet there has been no major shift in party support. Yes, support for Labour is up. But it remains under 30%. I think the more interesting observation is the small increase of support for National.

Could it be that the threat of a centre-left government will lead some conservative voters to leave NZ First for National? Of course this is one poll. We will have to wait and see what other pollsters come up with before any trend can be discerned.