Shooting for 45 percent

Shooting for 45 percent
Don’t believe anyone who tells you the election result is in the bag, writes Pattrick Smellie. It’s not over til the fat lady sings

Don’t believe anyone who tells you the election result is in the bag, writes Pattrick Smellie. It’s not over til the fat lady sings.

While the National Party would seem to have a tailwind, thanks to a weak and apparently disunited Opposition and a stonkingly strong economy, MMP elections rarely deliver simple results.

With the possible exception of 2002, where it was clear National was on a hiding to nothing, every election since MMP was introduced at the 1996 election has been a close-fought thing.

ILLUSTRATION: Angela Keoghan

The rule of thumb is always that the polls close up as election day approaches, and the fact remains that the difference between a majority in Parliament and the Opposition benches comes down to a few MPs in minor parties.

In the forthcoming election, it’s the fortunes of the New Zealand First, Maori and Conservative parties that are most likely to determine the outcome. The challenge for NZ First is to get over five percent of the vote, which history suggests Winston Peters is good enough to do. For the Maori party, two seats seem a sure bet, despite its weakened state. For the Conservatives, polling consistenly around three percent, everything hinges on whether National gifts its leader, Colin Craig, a safe National seat. So far, that’s not looking simple.

Of course, Labour could perform far worse than the 35 percent it cobbled together in the 2011 election, but even the likelihood is that a entre-left exodus from Labour would go to the Greens rather than to the centre-right.

That means that a rough balance between support for the Labour-Greens mainstream centre-left proposition and the National mainstream centre-right proposition is likely to remain in place.

The permutations beyond that are endlessly interesting to the train-spotting types who treat elections as a three-yearly live-fire exercise in political Sudoku.

But for the rest of us, how best to work out what might happen?

Well, how about this for a rule of thumb? Keep an eye on which mainstream combination is able to muster 45 percent of the vote. Whichever can do so consistently is most likely to be able to form the next government.

In late March, the two sides were evenly balanced in TV3’s Roy Morgan poll at 45.5 percent support apiece. That tells you how tight the race could be on September 20.

At 44 percent, however it becomes harder, especially for National, to form a government. National will have to talk far more nicely to Winston Peters and Te Uruora Flavell than the Labour-Green side if it’s to get New Zealand First and the Maori party either in its tent or at least providing minimalist support for a minority government.

At 43 percent, National’s job will be that much harder again, and at 42 percent or less, plan for a change of government.

Likewise, if National starts polling consistently a bit above 45 percent, its chances of hanging on are far stronger than those extra one or two percentage points of support suggest.

So, if it’s south of 45 for the Nats, plan for David Cunliffe to lead the next government and to represent New Zealand at the G-20 meeting in Brisbane in November.

And if it’s north of 45, it’s a reasonable bet we’ve got three more years of John Key.