Tim Watkins

So is National’s campaign “slick” or “a mess”?

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.

He concludes:

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.

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Colin Craig, Jamie Whyte and Pakuranga

Following Maurice Williamson’s fall from grace, the sharks immediately began circling around his electorate seat of Pakuranga. First up was Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, telling Radio NZ:

“I haven’t ruled out standing there myself. I did grow up in Howick and Pakuranga, I played cricket for Howick-Pakuranga, my father taught at Pakuranga College so there are ties to that electorate. It’s an area that I know, an area that I grew up in and then from there it’s a genuine area that I could represent.”

Over at Pundit, Tim Watkins laughs off Mr Craig’s musings on standing in Pakuranga as being nothing but publicity seeking. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. Here’s my reasoning:

Colin Craig must surely know by now that it’s going to take a miracle to get his Conservative Party over the 5% threshold. His only realistic possibility of making it into Parliament is if National gift him an electorate seat (and the voters play ball). (I’ve blogged about the Conservative Party’s polling issues here, and I note that this site’s Poll of Polls currently has the Conservatives on just 2.0%, hardly lighting the world on fire).

After initially trying to pin his name to the new seat of Upper Harbour, Mr Craig had his hopes firmly dashed by Paula Bennett, who had no intention of going gently into reliance on the lottery of list rankings. Murray McCully’s seat of East Coast Bays then beckoned, with the punditry predicting that McCully would fall on his sword if called upon by John Key. The likelihood of Craig standing there only increased when it was revealed that his father, Ross Craig, had managed to have the electorate boundaries redrawn in order to get Ross Craig and his wife and an additional 120 neighbouring voters into the electorate.

The issue for Mr Craig is that his success in East Coast Bays relies on National throwing one of their long-time stalwart MPs under the bus. John Key isn’t going to want to make that call unless he thinks he really needs Mr Craig, which is why Mr Key is attending ACT party fundraisers in Epsom, and Mr Craig is getting nothing.

I get the feeling that Mr Craig would have looked at Mr Williamson’s blood on the floor and made a calculation or two. Sure, Mr Williamson is another long-time National party stalwart, but he’s also just been sacked as a Minister and may be viewed as expendable. He’s past his prime and has proven himself in the past to be a bit of a loose cannon. If National has to throw a long-serving MP under a bus, wouldn’t it be better to do it to one who’s already a political corpse? Even better, it’s a safe National seat – National won 62.8% of the party vote there in 2011. And to top it all off, the Conservative candidate in 2011 came in third with 5.2% – a good base to start from!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Craig’s expression of interest involved a testing of the waters to check National’s reaction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, National’s public reaction was non-existent, although it may have provoked some discussion in various party back rooms.

The Conservative’s are hoping to finalise their candidates by the end of the month, and I would predict that one further calculation will result in Mr Craig throwing his hat into East Coast Bays. That calculation is Mr Williamson’s reliance on Pakuranga as an insurance policy. He’s been a pariah before, back in 2002 when he was hammered for criticising National’s then-leader Bill English and disappeared from the party list. On that occasion he basically campaigned solely on the electorate vote, gaining a 43.94% personal vote compared to a 26.09% party vote for National in the electorate (although that party vote was still ahead of the nation-wide average). If Williamson wants to stick around as an MP, he’ll be determined to hold Pakuranga to the bitter end, despite whatever the party might want of him.

But Colin Craig wasn’t the only shark circling. ACTs leader, Jamie Whyte, also popped his hand up as a possible contender to take the seat. Mr Whyte’s bid Pakuranga didn’t last long. He soon decided that he didn’t want to end up splitting the anti-Colin Craig vote between he and Mr Williamson, a somewhat laughable proposition.

The odd thing about Mr Whyte’s bid though was that it makes no sense at all for him to make a tilt for a seat he has no chance of winning. National will be gifting ACT Epsom; they’re certainly not going to hand ACT two seats, and Whyte’s individual profile is hardly such that he’d be in a position to take out a sitting MP without National’s help. The only way that Whyte will be making it into Parliament is for ACT to get enough party votes to bring in an additional list MP. The last thing Mr Whyte should be contemplating is the pouring of his energies into an electorate campaign, when his only hope of success is in broadening ACTs nationwide appeal.

Which means, all in all, that Maurice Williamson will remain safe in Pakuranga.

The Standard – sigh…

Tim Watkins had a post up at the Pundit site called “Does the Labour-National gap even matter under MMP? You bet“. He made a number of good points, which I’ll paraphrase below:

  • No party under MMP has formed the next government when they have been on the losing end of a 15% gap between the major parties.
  • Volunteers and MPs are more likely to work hard when the polls are closer.
  • It’s hard to get the “missing million” out when there’s a huge gap between the major parties, and Labour doesn’t look like winning.
  • If NZ First holds the balance of power, and Labour is 15% behind National, it will be hard for Winston Peters to justify to his supporters any decision to go with Labour.
  • Likewise, if the Maori party were to hold the balance of power, Te Ururoa Flavell has made it clear they will go with the larger party.

Over at the Standard, Ben Clark has put up a post entitled “Tim Watkin is wrong“. The gist? In all of the MMP elections that have occurred worldwide, there has been one example of the losing party (by a 15 point gap) forming the government – the 2011 Baden-Wurttemberg state election.

That’s great, Mr Clark, but it somewhat misses the point. For a start, I’m fairly confident that Tim Watkins was talking about NZ MMP elections when he wrote that “[n]o party has had [a 15 percentage point] lead under MMP and not formed the next government”. And even if he weren’t (and had, horror of horrors, failed to account for the 2011 Baden-Wurttemberg state election), his major point is that a 15 percentage point gap between National and Labour will have a number of flow on effects, both in terms of campaign enthusiasm from MPs and activists and in terms of the coalition negotiations that follow.

Unfortunately, Mr Clark hasn’t bothered to address any of Mr Watkins’ substantive points. The 2011 Baden-Wurttemberg state election is Mr Clark’s talisman, and nothing shall divert him from its complete inconsequentiality to NZ MMP politics, where voters (admittedly, for no good reason) have a fundamental dislike of the idea that the “winning” party doesn’t get to be the government.

It seems typical of the left these days to seize on one arcane point and completely ignore the important points that are everywhere else around them. Can’t see the wood for the trees, and all that… And just drink the Koolaid – it’ll be good for you…