28 March 2015

Winston Peters humiliates National up north

Winston Peters has proved political pundits spectacularly wrong in Northland, his home turf. A decisive 54% vote in his favour means that the latest pre-election opinion polls were close to the mark, and that early predictions of an easy National win were proven drastically wrong.
On the prediction-trading website iPredict, the price for betting on ‘National candidate to win Northland by-election’ dropped from around 90 cents in the first week of March to well below 20 cents by the Saturday of the by-election itself. Smirks on National supporters’ faces turned to alarm as opinion polls first showed Winston level with National’s newby candidate, and then had him streaking ahead. Quite a few people blew their money by punting on National. So, what went wrong?
In the 2014 General Election, only about 4,500 (12.7%) gave their party vote to NZ First. Because NZ First did not have a candidate in that election, which candidate did they vote for as a ‘second preference’? About two thirds of them ticked the Labour candidate. Far fewer went to National’s candidate and to the others. So, on that base of support for NZ First, there was a stronger cross-affiliation between Labour and NZ First than between National and NZ First.
But, because National’s former MP, Mike Sabin, got 52% support as candidate, in order to win the by-election, Mr Peters had to pull votes away from National as well as from the left – or at least hope that a lot of erstwhile National supporters stayed at home. The left-wing voters, if they ganged up against National and voted for Peters, were not numerically strong enough to get Peters across the line on their own.
So, Peters had the challenge of appealing to both the right and the left of the spectrum. And he totally out-classed the inexperienced Mr Osborne on the campaign trail. NZ First lacked National’s street-level organizational forces, including troops brought in from Auckland, to rally voters on the day. So, the result in favour of Mr Peters has to be attributed to his own widely recognised persona, his street-level campaigning, and his effective use of the media.
On the day, though, the turnout was significantly lower than at the general election, so it’s hard to draw quick conclusions about how many voters switched allegiances and how many just stayed at home. But it’s safe to say that those who had previously supported the Labour candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, mostly voted tactically for Peters, and probably many Green supporters did too. Peters probably stole quite a number of erstwhile National supporters, but many of them perhaps didn’t vote at all. The differences from last year’s Labour, Green and ‘other’ voters almost add up to Winston’s 15,359 votes. But it seems unlikely that he did not also benefit from a good number of defections from the National camp.
Labour came in for criticism for doing an Epsom-style maneuver, more or less telling their supporters not to waste their votes on the Labour candidate, but to give it to Peters. Labour were already committed, however, to fielding a candidate by the time it became obvious that Peters could win. So Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime could not be withdrawn from the ballot. In any case, Labour needed to keep their candidate and their party in the race, and not to let down their staunchest supporters.
The by-election would not have happened at all had National not fielded Mark Sabin as their candidate at last year’s election. His standing down, under unexplained circumstances, triggered the by-election. National thought they could sleep-walk to victory, but they hadn’t counted on Peters as a potential candidate. The National Party ended up in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t corner, thanks to a series of electoral blunders. And they couldn’t fight their way out of it because their candidate simply couldn’t overcome the Peters effect.


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