Political punditry is definitely a matter of perspective. If you were a Fox News commentator during the last US presidential election, Mitt Romney’s campaign was a dead cert winner; if you were Nate Silver, Obama was going to romp home. (Of course, if you rely on Fox News for your political commentary, you probably deserve to be duped.)
Here in New Zealand, in Election 2014, I’ve just read two very different accounts of the two main parties’ campaigns – Andrea Vance’s ‘The slick and the dead calm‘ and Tim Watkin’s ‘If this was Labour we’d be calling it a mess‘. On the one hand, Ms Vance describes National’s campaign as “slick, polished and organised to the last detail”, while Labour’s “is ad hoc, chaotic and oddly low-energy”.
Her description of Team Key?
National leader John Key whizzed his way across Auckland on Monday, barely pausing for a breath. A brisk shopping centre walkabout was memorable, mainly for the sheer numbers who stopped him for a selfie. The campaign bus rolled up, stacked with supporters in their Team Key sweaters.
Key is merciless in keeping the exchanges swift – a grin for the camera phone, and an exchange of pleasantries and he’s on to the next voter.
And David Cunliffe, campaigning with Tamati Coffey in Rotorua?
The day started with a selfie – and there were plenty – but to be blunt, Coffey was the bigger drawcard.
A stop-off at a local primary school excited pupils, especially when told a Labour government would give them each a tablet. But with only a handful of eligible voters in the room, reporters wondered how effective the visit was.
A scheduled town centre walkabout was delayed by 35 minutes as Cunliffe, Coffey and activists stopped for a curry. “An army marches on its stomach,” Cunliffe said later. On the stroll he talked with eight people, two of whom were in town from overseas.
Cunliffe versus Key is a popularity contest not being fought on a level playing field. The Labour leader has been in the job barely a year, and has struggled against character assassinations from both inside and outside his party. But yesterday his campaign should have been buoyed by Coffey’s star power. Instead, it was inexplicably flat.
Over at Pundit, Mr Watkin’s piece takes a completely different tack to that of Vance. Warning that “It’s easy to get caught up in the daily news cycle”, he steps back to look at the bigger campaign picture and the problems National are facing. There’s the acceptance by Bill English that the economy has “peaked” and that we’re in for slower growth; there’s John Key and Bill English lurching all over the show with their opposing views on whether tax cuts are on the agenda; there’s the shadow of Judith Collins and whatever mistake- or Whaledump-driven headline she’ll generate next.
Put all that together and frankly, it’s a mess for National. On their own, such stories can be put down to the unavoidable rough and tumble of the campaign but the worry for the party’s strategists will be if there’s a cumulative impact.
If it was Labour we’d be saying ‘here we go again’. National’s track record of discipline means commentators are slower to point out the mess when it appears, assuming it’s a blip rather than a trend.
But that’s now for National to prove one way or another. Momentum heading into the final fortnight is crucial, and the fact is National doesn’t have it. Is its campaign plan “dissolving” or can its leadership get back on track?
So there you have it – small picture-wise, National’s going great guns; big picture-wise, they’re staring down the barrel of a possible disaster.
On the plus side for National, it’s difficult to find anyone complimenting Labour on either the big picture or small picture view of their campaign.
Perspective – it’s key.