Two, three, four or five?

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

No doubt many ACT supporters will have a spring in their step as they walk through Newmarket this morning, with the party reaching an impressive 4.0% in the final Fairfax poll out this morning. (For all poll details see Curiablog‘s summary).

But the other polls all show different results, with ACT winning two, three or four seats. Taking the average, I think this gets ACT a highly likely three seats, with a 50% chance of winning a fourth seat. The two or five seat options would remain outliers.

So Douglas becomes a backbencher.

In October, we had two Roy Morgan polls which gave ACT 3.5% of the party vote. Morgan polls have jumped around during the year for ACT and it pronounced several other “false dawns” earlier which put ACT at a relatively high level of support. I think the early October poll was another example of this, as its results were uncorroborated by other pollsters. The late October poll, however, may have reflected the beginnings of ACT’s apparent upturn.

The upturn was not inevitable. There appear to have been two main catalysts for the change.

Firstly, as I reported earlier, there has been a focus on strategical or tactical voting in the last couple of weeks. On the left, voters have come to the conclusion that Labour will not be leading another government and have taken the liberty of shifting their support to the Greens. On the right, hard-right National supporters have realised that National has plenty of supporters and that shifting their vote to the right and to ACT will not hurt the final outcome.

The surge in support for smaller parties such as the Greens and ACT (and even New Zealand First, although not enough to make it count) is to be expected in a unexciting campaign in which one party is so clearly in front. Small parties should also be benefiting from the Labour-National consensus, as voters look for something different. But as Dr. Bryce Edwards has pointed out, small parties are “killing us with boredom, consensus and sameness”. While ACT does offer a different policy programme to National, the focus in the last month on a hardline stance on crime has been neither inspiring nor innovative.

The second catalyst has come only in the last week and I think is responsible for most of the increase in support. It consists of the direct overtures made by John Key to ACT and his pledge that Rodney Hide will be a minister in government. It consists of a joint National-ACT coffee meeting. It consists of a photo of a smiling Key and Hide in a newspaper. As I have previously written, this gives what the party has long lacked – relevance. Voters know that if National forms the next government, ACT will have a minister as part of it. This realization – and the fact that voters are paying attention – is what has changed in the latter stages of the campaign.

Does this make sense for National? Yes and no. The endorsement seemed to have been already implicit and “priced in” by voters. National could always count on ACT’s two votes. Moreover, with ACT having run such a right-wing campaign, ACT’s surge in support can only have come from National supporters.

This means that ACT’s support has simply come from support shifting amongst the bloc. While this is always what has happened with ACT and should not come as a surprise, the difference is that this time the support drift from National to ACT has been supported by the former. Such an explicit endorsement has never happened in a previous campaign.

So bad news for National? Any increased support for ACT would presumably give it more leverage in getting across its own agenda, as opposed to National. With five MPs, ACT would have some bargaining power and perhaps begin to drag National away from its pragmatic, “centrist” policy programme.

Presumably. Or maybe not. As a National Party insider told me, “where are they [ACT] going to go?” Just as the Greens are captive to Labour on the left, ACT is hostage to National on the right. National will have to and will give ACT a bone, but there’s no need to add some Tux biscuits alongside, unless it happens to be something National would do anyway or something arcane which would not overly bother voters (the Regulatory Responsibility Bill comes to mind).

But for any of this, the votes will have to be won first.

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