Thursday, October 30, 2008

ACT media site

Party enthusiasts have launched a new website for the presentation of ACT videos from the campaign trail. It has a refreshing home-crafted look! ACT has never been short of text policy and PDFs online, but a central repository for video clips (some have been drifting on YouTube and the main ACT website for a couple of years already) are a welcome addition. I hope the future will see videos, rather than just transcripts, of all party speeches being placed online. Well done to the site creators.

Ansell's new ad

I've been alerted to the return of John Ansell to ACT's campaign, with a new ad promoting strategic voting and favouring ACT over National. To be honest I'm a little surprised that Ansell is behind the advertisement, which is classic ACT: far too many words per square centimetre. However, the overall thrust of the advertisement is sound and the slogan "Strengthen the Nats. Party vote ACT" is something the party has long needed.

The only question is why ACT did not switch to strategic campaigning months ago, when it found its efforts to convince voters to vote ACT based on the small party's policy alone futile. With a crisp and consistent message, I think strategic voting by people not necessarily enamoured with ACT policy could have brought ACT up to the 5% mark. Ansell's work could be too little, too late.

Emissions Trading Scheme

One of ACT's centrepiece policies of this election pledges to repeal the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). As I understand it, the ETS will require businesses to purchase "credits" for carbon they wish to emit from other companies which have a surplus (e.g. foresters). There is an official diagram which explains this further. The ETS enjoys support from both Labour and National. But ACT opposes it.

My concern here is not so much the workings of the ETS, but the way ACT has promoted its opposition to it. There is no question that the party sees it as a key policy plank; last week it organised a stunt in Cornwall Park, located by One Tree Hill in Auckland. I watched the 3 News video on this and saw a "farmer" hauling an oversized $5bn cheque made out to Russia being whipped by a "witch". This was the second such stunt recently organised to exemplify ACT policy - the first was the display of 77 coffin lids outside Mt. Eden prison to supposedly represent victims who would be alive under ACT's crime policy.

Obviously I can see what ACT was getting at with its stunt at Cornwall Park. But I have some criticisms of it. Opposition to the ETS should be a policy aimed at farmers; the costs to them are what ACT points out the most. ACT should be interested in winning rural votes. So why launch the policy in an Auckland park? Why not, well, a farm? Come on - there are plenty not that far away from Auckland. By staging it in Cornwall Park, ACT keeps its slick urban look - which is not wanted here.

Even better would have been to take the policy on the road - why not the King Country, where a decade ago ACT had its best ever election showing (albeit a symbolic one), when it won 24% of the party vote in the Taranaki-King Country by-election? National has had the rural vote under lock and key for long enough, but just as formerly New Zealand First and latterly the Maori Party have managed to siphon off the Maori vote, a good chunk of the rural farming vote is winnable for ACT. Especially if farmers realise that National is going to cost them money!

Then there is the staging of the stunt itself, which I felt was alienating. To be frank, the witch whipping the farmer seemed to me more like something Brian Tamaki would come up with for a Good Friday procession. I don't think the connection to the ETS was at all clear.

But above all I question the whole packaging of the opposition to the ETS. The ETS still counts as a technical term; it needs to be explained before understanding what ACT is even opposing. Let's make it clearer: ACT sees the ETS as a form of rural "red tape". This is something easily understandable. So why not package it as such? ACT surely opposes other forms of regulations introduced which it sees as hindering other rural dwellers; its "beef" is surely not just the ETS alone, but regulation in general. So: stage a rural campaign in a genuinely rural setting, invite some real farmers along and package it as "cut rural red tape".

Or another option could have been to keep it under ACT's climate change policy. The "Smart Green" policy was something that Rodney Hide seemed genuinely interested in during 2007 and something on which he could claim credibility due to his academic background in environmental issues - something which I imagine would still surprise most voters. I doubt that this slogan would have won ACT that many votes, but "Smart Green" is still more saleable than "dump the ETS". Still, there are still plenty of climate change sceptics out there - John Key is/was one of them - so it would have been worth a try.

There is a reason why National was so successful in 2003 with its campaign against the "fart tax". The words "fart tax". And there's a reason why the opposition to the Child Discipline Bill did not disappear quickly - the pithy label "anti-smacking". A saleable label is what ACT needed with its opposition to the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lysander Research

Some correspondence available on my recent series (see Part 1 and Part 2) on ACT's poll ratings:

Hi Geoffrey

I know you prefaced you comments by saying that you are not a statistician, but I think you should leave the commentary on polling to people who are a little more informed.

Your statement:
"ACT supporters are perhaps actually overrepresented in opinion polls, due to the fact that they are likely to be older and thus more likely to be at home when rung by polling companies"
shows your complete ignorance of polling techniques. Polling firms use quotas to ensure that they obtain a representative sample - once we have enough old people in the sample we stop ringing them, while young people are more difficult to contact due to the prevalence of cell phone only households, we continue to ring until we reach quota, or weight responses.

There is an argument that the green vote is actually over stated, due to the low turn out of younger voters which is not factored into the some of the demographic models that some NZ pollsters use.

As you are student of political science, I would suggest that you take a few undergrad papers in opinion polling before you express an opinion on something you know little about.

Regards
Stuart Wilson
Director
Lysander Research

---

Hi Stuart,

It's tempting to fight fire with fire. I welcome genuine feedback, but I don't think it's fair to make patronising comments to me, especially when your own background is hardly an independent one. I am upfront about my research interest in ACT, you should be upfront about your partisan one.

To clarify, Lysander Research is a front for ACT. I found the following information revealing (source: http://groups.google.com/group/nz.general/browse_thread/thread/fc7dff3374919d2f?pli=1)

"There is a website lysanderresearch.com that never seems to work. They seem to have done "polling" for Dick Quax who stood for Parliament as an ACT Party candidate. Now they appear to be doing "polling" for Rodney Hide. The pollster was evasive when I asked if he was connected with a polical party. So if Lysander Research phones anyone, ask if they are polling for ACT. And where's their office and why don't they have a website that works."

"Companies Office records show the involvement of a Stuart Wilson in
Lysander Research Ltd. A whois lookup for lysanderresearch.com shows the registrant as Stuart Wilson, ACT NZ, Suite 5, Level 2, 309 Broadway, Newmarket."

"Thanks, I thought as much. I did ask the interviewer if he was
connected with a political party and he said no. A typical ACT liar."

It sounds like your own polling methods are somewhat questionable. And your criticism of my commentary does not even focus on the key point: ACT has polled better in opinion polls immediately before elections since 1999 than it actually does on election day. I do not need to have taken "a few undergrad papers in opinion polling" before making this observation.

The statement you chose to critcise was merely an attempt at a possible, plausible explanation for this phenomenon. Notice that I caged this with "perhaps", precisely because this was merely a supposition.

As for your explanation of polling company methods - my "completely ignoran[t]" view is this. Ringing landlines to "reach quota" doesn't replace actually ringing mobiles - you are just getting youth who have access to landlines, which is not the same thing. Given overseas pollsters ring mobiles using random dialling techniques, I'm surprised your company doesn't do this.

And seeing you are a professional, please offer some supporting evidence about your "argument" about the Green vote being overstated by "some" polling companies.

Regards,

Geoffrey

Attack - and be attacked

Recently ACT has launched some scathing attacks on both Labour and National, in the hope of tarring both with the same brush and showing ACT out to be the only option for something different. To take just one example, from last week:
It's clear to us that the problem for New Zealand is economic as well as financial. It's also clear that the political response from John Key and Michael Cullen has been both woeful and irresponsible. Their policy promises will make tough times worse.
ACT can keep chipping away on these attacks, but its capacity to be heard is limited. Money per se is not and never has been ACT's problem - as was recently exemplified by the revelations of John Boscawen's and Alan Gibbs' high rolling donations. But most people will think of ACT's attacks as some borer chewing away at furniture: you don't notice it's even happening until its too late.

Now, much more effective than doing the attacking is being attacked by someone else. On Monday, Helen Clark associated National with ACT and Roger Douglas. By attempting to associate National with Douglas, once - but perhaps no longer - the most polarising of New Zealand political figures, Labour is hoping enough voters will have second thoughts about voting for National on November 8.

It's a similar, yet different tactic, to Barack Obama's linking of John McCain to George Bush in the "other election". For Obama, it's part of a concerted and organised campaign; for Clark, it smacks of desperation.

But it should be good news for ACT. Being both Prime Minister and the leader of a much bigger party, Clark naturally draws substantial media attention. Most of ACT's attacks will never be reported; Clark's might be.

Furthermore, if Clark attacks ACT, she is in fact bringing ACT into the political debate, from which it is normally firmly shut out in a currently de facto two party contest. Studies show that small parties benefit from attacks from a "mainstream" party, perhaps because of an inclination to support the underdog.

Even better from ACT's point of view would be for National to respond to Clark's association: it could force John Key to enunciate his party's position to ACT, again bringing the smaller party into the frame. Having been shut out of all-party debates, an attack would give ACT the chance to be evaluated side-by-side by voters. And some of those voters might decide they like what they see.

Hide the stuntman


A supporter of most ACT policies was kind enough to send me some photos of the party's weekend campaign event. Some refreshing honesty here: even the supporter described it as a "stunt". As the photo shows, it involved putting up 77 cardboard coffins to represent victims of violent crime who would have been "saved" had ACT's crime policy been in place.

Visual representations like this are designed for television and are not a stupid idea by any means. There was talk at ACT's conference in March of carrying out similar exercises for economic matters. The obvious one would be to pile up a stacks of money to a certain height to show how much other parties' spending plans would cost per second/minute/year. However, in recent weeks ACT seems to concluded that its economic plans are unsaleable to swing voters and has switched to a heavy emphasis on crime instead. Hence Sunday's stunt.

Unfortunately for ACT, the stunt seemed to go largely unnoticed - neither the Herald nor Stuff websites seemed to carry a report, according to a search of Google News. The notable exception was a piece on 3 News, which I thought gave some sympathetic coverage of ACT's campaign. Organisers of the stunt would have been delighted that prison staff tried to shut down the event - being attacked always generates more heat.

Intriguingly, the 3 News reporter told viewers that a recent poll of polls found ACT was on track to gain 3 MPs in the next Parliament. I'm not sure whether this came from ACT itself, but I've been watching Curiablog's summary and thought ACT had been stuck on 2 MPs for some months now (although it did rise to 3 earlier in the year).

What to make of the billboard itself? Considering John Ansell parted ways with ACT earlier in the year (although as he said he would still help the party in certain ways, perhaps he did have input), I think it's not a bad effort. But there are some flaws. I like the alteration to the "three strikes and you're out" message which is not new and in fact extremely tired. By replacing "out" with "in", anyone who reads the billboard will do a double-take, driving home the idea even more strongly. (Although I'm sure it will still wash over some). The simple ACT logo with the big party vote message is also bold and effective - mercifully the ineffective and immemorable "The Guts to Do What's Right" slogan introduced earlier in the year has been dropped (looking at the ACT website this seems to have been a uniform decision).

However, I wonder why we need a smiling face of Hide plastered over half the billboard. Sure, he is the party's most recognisable figure by a long way. But his jovial picture just jars with the harsh message of the billboard. You don't want a snarling Hide either - so I suggest leaving him out altogether. You can't vote for Hide on the party vote, so let the party stand alone for once. A pair of hands with handcuffs on them - a la ACT's 2002 billboard - would have been a good substitute. Save pictures of Hide for either billboards asking for the electorate vote in Epsom, or for billboards with positive messages, such as "ACT to make NZ wealthy again" or whatever.

Last thought - when I first glanced at the photo I was sure the middle figure was Stephen Franks. (Actually David Garrett).

It would have been right up Franks's alley.

Monday, October 20, 2008

How accurate are ACT's poll ratings? Part 2

ACT is polling at 2% or less in opinion polls - 1% according to Saturday's Fairfax poll. Three weeks out from election day, this must be discouraging for ACT supporters. Is this picture an accurate reflection of what the party will gain on election day? Or is it underestimating support for ACT? In part 2 of my report, I examine whether a reverse "Bradley effect" could be underestimating support for ACT in opinion polls.

Because I'm interested in historical comparisons, the best resource would be a database averaging the various polls taken in election years. Lacking this, I decided to look at two polls with data easily available. An interactive graphic is available for the Herald-Digipoll, which shows polling results for ACT going back to before the 1999 election, while Roy Morgan has published polls available from just before the 2005 election. A disclaimer: I'm not a statistician and this is an informal experiment. Here is what I found:
  • In 1999, the final Herald-Digipoll put ACT at around 8.5% in the final poll before election day. This was a downwards trend: the party had over 10% support in the previous two polls. On election day, ACT received 7% of the party vote.

  • In 2002, the final Digipoll put ACT at 8% support. On election day, this turned out to be 7.1% of the party vote. Previous polls had put ACT lower, however, at around 6%.

  • In 2005, the final Digipoll put ACT at around 1.4%. Previous polls had put ACT higher, however, at around 2%. The final Roy Morgan poll before the 2005 election placed ACT on 3% support; the penultimate poll recorded 2.5%. On election day 2005, ACT received a 1.5% share of the party vote.
Results? Remember, I don't claim this to be a scientific exercise. Yet on looking at these numbers, it seems that if anything, opinion polls close to election days seem to overestimate support for ACT, not underestimate it! The only time a final poll before election day put ACT below what it actually received was in 2005 - and the Digipoll then only put ACT a tiny fraction lower. This could be ominous for ACT indeed: with the party only reaching 1-2% in most polls, the election day result could be lacklustre to say the least. If history repeats itself, the latest 2008 Roy Morgan poll, which put at ACT at 3.5%, could be as much a "false hope" as the 2.5-3% ratings the company had for ACT last time around.

Why could this be? I can think of two plausible reasons off the top of my head:
  • The stigma effect no longer applies to ACT as strongly as it once did - if it ever did. Memories of the 1980s have faded. Moreover, ACT has shed any racist overtones it had by playing down its "One Law for All" message. Is anyone really afraid of saying he or she supports ACT? Is it any "worse" than supporting National?

  • ACT supporters are perhaps actually overrepresented in opinion polls, due to the fact that they are likely to be older and thus more likely to be at home when rung by polling companies. Younger voters are more likely to use mobile phones only and therefore not be picked up in polls. Yet despite a small but vocal ACT on Campus group, they are the voters less likely to be ACT supporters. (By the same token, we could expect younger Green voters to be underestimated in opinion polls).
My conclusion is this: if the polls are "wrong", this is not likely to be in ACT's favour. If polls put ACT on 1-2%, it's most likely because ACT is at 1-2%. Or worse.

How accurate are ACT's poll ratings? Part 1

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Christopher von Marschall, author of Barack Obama - der schwarze Kennedy ("Barack Obama - the black Kennedy"), which by all accounts is a well-researched and well-written analysis of Obama's career to date. For his research, von Marschall began attending Obama campaign events in 2006, so the book isn't the sort of dashed-off, quick-money affair I thought it might be.

Discussion at the talk inevitably turned to current opinion polls and whether they were accurate enough. As would be expected, von Marschall pointed out the possibility of the "Bradley effect", which implies Obama's support in opinion polls could be less than on election day due to a sort of reverse racism amongst some respondents (this week's Economist has a good article on this). That is, poll respondents say they will vote for Obama, but come November 4, actually choose John McCain.

Putting this in context for his audience, von Marschall related the Bradley effect to German opinion polls for state elections. These frequently underestimate the support for neo-Nazi parties of the extreme right, such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which is represented in state parliaments of several states in Germany's east. The likely explanation for this occurence is that respondents do not want to admit to the telephonist that they support parties which are seen as distasteful and untouchable by many voters (and indeed, all other political parties). (Note that this is actually the Bradley effect in reverse: it implies that polls overestimate support, while the "NPD effect" implies support is underestimated).

I am not suggesting that ACT is directly comparable to extreme-right parties such as the NPD, which promotes overt racism and is described by intelligence agencies as a "threat to constitutional order". However, ACT still carries a lot of baggage: whenever I told friends and colleagues last year that my research was on the party, I almost always received sideways looks in return - at a minimum. Sometimes, the reaction even went as far as the use of certain words not suitable for printing here. Is there a stigma to voting ACT which prevents prospective voters from admitting their preference for the party?

Moreover, ACT supporters have often claimed their party is unfairly written off by commentators and polling does not reflect the level of true support. For example, one supporter recently commented on this blog:
Firstly, ACT's party vote will increase in Epsom undoubtedly due to the inevitability of Hide retaining the seat. This will occur to a lesser extent around the country and hence ACT will (as per usual) poll higher than the polls suggest. [Emphasis added]
A concrete example of a misleading poll was the TVNZ poll in Epsom in 2005 which showed Hide as losing the seat to Richard Worth, when in actual fact Hide went on to win the seat by a considerable margin. Hide still enjoys reminding voters and supporters of his electorate victory three years ago: "[o]n election night 2005 I was elected MP for Epsom. It was against the odds. It was against all predictions". These comments lend some partisan weight to the theory that ACT is not picked up accurately in opinion polling.

Is support for ACT underestimated in opinion polling compared to election day? One way of testing this would be to look at polling for ACT immediately prior to previous elections and see how close they were to the actual result on election day. This is what I will do in the next post.

Edited October 2012

Monday, October 13, 2008

ACT campaign launch

I'm sure most readers will be aware that ACT launched its election campaign with an event at Alexandra Park in Auckland on Sunday. Political party election launches in New Zealand do not give off "bounces", as is always hoped for after the Democratic and Republican conventions in the United States. Indeed, while the US conventions are technically necessary, in order to nominate the candidate, the NZ affairs are pure show.

Perhaps the best that a small party like ACT can hope for from its launch is to rally its supporters into working extra hard for the next four weeks. With so many parties launching their campaigns at the same time, a post-launch "bounce" in support is not in prospect.

Unfortunately the ACT website does not provide any video of the launch, so all I have to go by is the transcript of Hide's speech to the event. Much is the usual grist for the mill which you can read at the ACT website. But there are a couple of talking points for analysis here. The first made me chuckle, even if it relies on the written word, rather than the spoken form in which the speech was delivered. Referring to ACT list candidate John Boscawen, the transcript reads:

Party vote ACT and let John lose [sic] in Parliament. They won't know what's hit them.

Ah, the perils of the Microsoft Word spell-check.

The second point is a more serious one. Hide says:

I often get asked what the number one issue of this election is. I say crime.

Hide might "say" this, but I wonder if he really believes it. Crime is a legitimate issue. But for a party of economics in the first country in Asia to fall into recession, I think the genuine number one issue for ACT can only be the economy. And it was precisely that issue on which ACT was focusing up until the last month or two - the "biggest pledge card ever" was, after all, about how to make New Zealanders $500 better off per week.

However, I'm not saying that Hide is stupid for saying crime is the number one issue. Far from it. A hardline stance on crime is a populist, proxy issue for winning over hardline voters. In other words, the voters on National's right.

If voters had been convinced by ACT's economic plan, they would have said so by now and support for ACT would have filtered through to the opinion polls. But as I've said before, the time is over for convincing voters on policy detail. ACT needs a "soundbite" issue.

And crime is perhaps the one topic that is capable of whipping up something resembling a fervour and putting some quick runs up on the board in the final weeks.

Hide left to pick up the Peters

I recall once reading an article on ACT which compared Rodney Hide's perkbusting campaigns with rubbish collecting: it's something that has to be done, but you don't have to be enamoured with the rubbish collector. In other words, don't expect a boost in support for pursuing scandals.

Perhaps that's what happened with Rodney Hide and the Winston Peters saga. Despite Peters's claims to the contrary, it's clear that Peters was involved in something shady. No, the Serious Fraud Office did not find enough evidence to proceed further, but that doesn't mean that Hide was wrong to pursue the complaint. But ACT hasn't noticeably profited from the scandal, in terms of a substantive boost to its share of party vote.

To be sure, on his session on Radio Live last week, Hide distanced any association between his Peters complaints and his perkbusting of the 1990s. According to him, the 2008 version was different because he wasn't bursting with glee over the whole thing and drip-feeding titbits in Question Time. Instead, Hide said, he made official complaints through the proper channels and didn't feed it via the media. Ultimately, he said, Peters would be judged by two groups: the authorities and the voters.

But whether Hide likes it or not, for many voters his tackling Peters this year has brought back memories of the "old Hide" and his perkbusting. Indeed, it was the Radio Live host (James Coleman) who put the similarity to Hide; several callers into the show congratulated Hide on his work in the Peters affair. So there is a fair comparison.

I think the rubbish collecting analogy is a good explanation as to why ACT has not profited electorally. I think there were and are plenty of people grateful for Hide's tackling of Peters. John Key would be one of them, because it meant he did not have to get directly involved. But as with Hide's perkbusting campaigns in the 1990s, voters see the Peters saga as a sideshow. What else could a party on 3% (that's NZ First I'm talking about, not ACT) be? For most non-political watchers, the whole "Owen Glenn thing" is too messy to understand in any event.

Many voters - some 97% or so - would be quite happy to see the end of Winston Peters in the upcoming election.

Many voters are quite happy that Rodney Hide has taken out the "rubbish".

And many voters - some 94% or so - will be quite happy to choose neither ACT nor New Zealand First on November 8.

Roy Morgan poll

ACT supporters were no doubt buoyed by the Roy Morgan poll out on Friday which put ACT on a 3.5% share of the party vote. For a reality check, I looked at my own commentary from back in August 2008:
A little hope...came in the latest Roy Morgan poll, out on Friday. ACT - which these days normally doesn't even make it into polling commentary, leaving one to hunt for the light blue line just above the 0% mark in the accompanying graphic - has perhaps gained a little of what Duncan Garner et al. would call "traction". The party is now up to 2.5%.
Well, looking at the Roy Morgan site it seems that this hope subsequently faded back to 1.5% - Roy Morgan's result for ACT in the following three polls. Moreover, the TVNZ and TV3 polls out over the weekend both put ACT on less than 2% (1.6% and 1.8% respectively).

Troubling for ACT is also that National is descending faster than the smaller party can rise. The TV3 and Roy Morgan polls put National on 45% and 40% respectively. By those measures, ACT's 3.5% isn't going to put National over the line.

The results are in...

Well with a quite respectable total 51 votes, readers have voted on what they think will realistically be ACT's share of the party vote this year. The outright winner was the 4-4.9% segment, with 11 votes (22%), with 2-2.9% and 3-3.9% tied on 10 votes each. Going to show this blog is non-partisan, the very unlikely 7% or more band was favoured only by 9 voters and the doomsday scenario (for ACT supporters) of less than 1% had no support at all.

With some luck, I think it's plausible that ACT will get over the 4% mark on election day. There are enough voters on National's right who would prefer a more decisive stance on the economy and a more hardline position on crime. With the deterioration in the economy over the past few months, ACT's call for wholesale change begins to look more appropriate - if not exactly appealing. Locking up criminals for a long time also appeals in hard times. ACT offers both of these.

Equally, I think it's quite plausible that ACT will come in at considerably less than 3% - perhaps around the 2.5% mark. With some unfavourable polls for National, right-leaning voters may decide that they had better swing in behind their team and not risk the prospect of a Labour-led government (even though a vote for ACT should not engender this).

If ACT is to improve, it must keep bringing across its strategic benefits to voters - and thus pointing out its relevance. In recent weeks ACT has attempted this by stressing that a vote for ACT is a secure vote for a National government: as Hide says, "A Party Vote for ACT will ensure John Key makes a difference". The challenge is to gain access to the swing National-ACT voters and make them believe that they are not wasting their vote by choosing ACT.

In this respect one drawback for ACT is its deprivation of "air", caused by the absence of an all leaders' debate. This would have given Hide the chance to put his ideas directly alongside National's and could have forced John Key to enunciate his position on ACT to voters.

I'll keep the blog poll results up until the election and we'll see what happens.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hide on Radio Live

Rodney Hide is on Radio Live with host James Coleman taking talkback calls until midday today. So far there's been a lot of talk on crime policy but in the second hour we're getting more on to the economy.

It took almost an hour for the first female caller - 9.57am!

Herald's "street poll" in Botany

In 2005, ACT felt aggrieved by a One News poll which appeared to give Richard Worth a substantial lead over Rodney Hide. ACT's claim was that respondents were confused by the wording of the question on the electorate vote, which asked for the preferred party of the candidate, rather than the candidate's name. This gave the misleading impression that Worth was well in the lead.

Today the New Zealand Herald has published a street poll in Botany which seems questionable to me. For those of you who don't know, ACT is standing its candidate Kenneth Wang in the new electorate. He is not on the party list and is aiming to promote a "two for one" deal as Hide did in Epsom in 2005, as the National candidate, Pansy Wong, is sufficiently high enough on the National list to remain in Parliament anyway.

Before reading on, check out the polling graphic and accompanying article. For the record, the poll appears to give Kenneth Wang 8%, Labour candidate Koro Tawa 13% and National candidate Pansy Wong 52%.

Here are the problems I see with the poll at a glance:
  • It's not a genuine poll, but an unscientific street survey of just 100 people. While this gives some sense of "mood on the streets", it's certainly not the same as a random, telephone-based poll of a more substantive sample.

  • The party vote section of the graphic gives candidates' names, when these should be in the electorate vote section. This could just be a layout error, or it could suggest participants were asked a confusing question, as in the 2005 TVNZ poll.

  • Kenneth Wang is attributed to New Zealand First! Again, just a layout error?
However, let me conclude by saying that just because the poll may be flawed it doesn't necessarily mean that Wang is actually in the lead. Pansy Wong has been an MP for a long time and has a reputation of her own; moreover, she is running a concerted campaign of her own.

But we need an accurate poll to see really who is in front.

Reduce the indifference factor, not the fear factor

The New Zealand Herald has two articles on ACT in today's paper. One is a "Q&A session" with ACT leader Rodney Hide in today's edition, which doesn't offer a lot of new information, alhough it's interesting that when quizzed on economic policy Hide chooses to prioritise "certainty" for investors above the more punchy "tax cuts" message normally favoured. According to Hide there has been "policy uncertainty" in economic matters with the Labour-led government. I'd like to see Hide elaborate about what he means by "certainty".

The other article is a general overview of ACT's fortunes called "A[CT] needs to reduce the fear factor". Again, there's nothing particularly new but the last section which considers what ACT "needs to do in the campaign" is worthy of comment:
Reduce the fear factor associated with the "slash and burn" politics linked to Sir Roger Douglas when he was Labour's reforming finance minister. Convince voters that Act's policies are aimed at increasing the wealth of working New Zealanders, not just big business.

Convince right-leaning voters that Act could have some impact in a National-led government.
This cuts to the core debate over the merits of bringing back Douglas to ACT in 2008. If he was meant to be a "circuit breaker" for the party, it hasn't worked - ACT is polling at virtually the same level now as it was last year - less than two per cent. So at this stage perhaps we should mark down Douglas's return as a mistake: he has brought the party zero extra support. Even worse, Douglas has given the party a headache by reaffixing what the Herald calls the "fear factor" to ACT, with all the connotations of the unpopular 1980s economic reforms. Is this interpretation correct?

I might have tended towards this view in the past, but now I'm not so sure whether Douglas has had any effect - for better or worse. Looking at the latter, I think it's more of an "indifference factor" than a fear factor. Devoted ACT supporters which since 1994 have made up 1-2% of voters have been energized by Douglas's return - but the party hasn't been overwhelmed by an influx of new supporters. ACT's core supporters were always going to vote for ACT - now they actually want to.

A pertinent comparison from the "other election" could be how the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket has sparked new enthusiasm in the party's base, but has not brought over many moderate voters. Republicans were always going to vote for John McCain - now they actually want to.

Granted, the return of Douglas may have rekindled some of the distaste for ACT for some politically aware people. But these people were never going to vote for ACT anyway. Moreover, there haven't been any anti-ACT campaigns start up (as in the 1990s, when Sue Bradford led her unemployed rights marches against the party). The indifference to ACT and Douglas today is illustrated well by fellow blogger and University of Otago lecturer Dr. Bryce Edwards, who recently recalled his own activism against the party in the 1990s:
I last saw Douglas speak in about 1994 at the University of Canterbury. I actually organised a lot of publicity on campus for the talk by putting up hundreds of posters denouncing Douglas for his rightwing radicalism and warning people about his upcoming talk to students. Of course, this had the counter affect, and I think my friends and I were inadvertently responsible for helping Douglas fill the auditorium (and dozens were turned away from the large venue).
Edwards contrasted this event with his experience of Douglas in 2008: instead of filling an auditorium of university students, he was giving a watered-down speech to a sleepy business audience which "didn't appear terribly enthused by Douglas and his 'vision'...[v]ery few questions were asked; long silences occurred." Edwards concluded that the "'Roger Douglas comeback' is definitely without the Rogernomics, and nothing that is going to revitalise the fading A[CT] party."

Why has the "fear factor" reduced? A major factor I think is that there are so many people now who have no direct memories of the 1980s reforms, with the two main groups being all voters aged under about 30 and recent immigrants. Above all, many voters have since moved on: if Rogernomics were new and different twenty-five years ago, much of the policy (if not the most radical components) has already become part of the wallpaper. It seems natural that Telecom is a private company. It seems normal that we pay 12.5% GST. And no-one is calling for reintroducing farming subsidies - not even the farmers themselves.

So if there is in fact no "fear factor" to eliminate, what else could be the problem? One month out from the election, I think the answer is the question of relevance. The Herald hints at this in the final line - that ACT needs to make voters believe that it will have some effect in a National-led government. Somehow, ACT needs to convince voters to vote ACT for its tactical ability, above all via a "keep National honest" message.

I think the time is largely over for ACT to try and convince voters to choose the party based purely on the merits of its policy. Instead it needs to get voters on election strategy. In short, ACT needs to talk down the likelihood of National gaining a clear majority and talk up the necessity for a coalition partner:
  • Can National/John Key be trusted?
  • Do you want to give National a blank cheque for 3 years?
  • Will National really reform the country or is it just "Nationalabour"?
  • Would you prefer Maori Party or ACT to be National's coalition partner?
  • Do you want the Maori Party/New Zealand First to hold National to ransom?
Election strategy is also about stressing the "value-for-money" messages which ACT successfully trialled in Epsom in 2005. Get Hide and Worth. Get Wang and Wong. Or use the Hillary Clinton line: get change and experience.

We're entering the final phase...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Wisdom from Guyon Espiner

Some flippant food for thought...

I didn't know that Guyon Espiner had a blog, but buried on the TVNZ site it appears he does. In his latest post called "Minor parties and political power" the state broadcaster's resident sage gives his opinion on the best of the rest - and mentions only New Zealand First, the Greens and the Maori Party, in that order.

Beryl Good (20 on ACT's list) commented directly on Espiner's post:

"Hello Guyon Why have you not mentioned the ACT Party on your Minor Parties and Political power talk? ACT has so much sensible policy AND they have the top people ready to offer NZ a government of change NOT just a change of government. It seems strange you would mention the other parties and not ACT".

Beryl has overlooked Guyon's clever but subtle riddle. There are clearly two options:
  • For ACT non-supporters: ACT does not and will not have any "political power"
  • For ACT supporters: along with Labour, National, United Future and the Progressive Party, ACT is a major party!!!!

ACT, David Garrett and the Sensible Sentencing Trust

I neglected to place a comment at the time on ACT's announcement that David Garrett, legal counsel for the right-wing lobby group called the Sensible Sentencing Trust, is on place number 5 in the party list. Place 5 was left open at the time of ACT's main list announcement in August.

It's not surprising that ACT has, as Steve Braunias puts it today, "sidled up" to the Sensible Sentencing Trust. An anti-crime message has been a key part of the party's election platform since 1999. In 2002, the "Zero Tolerance for Crime" was accompanied by billboards showing handcuffs on a supposed criminal with the slogan "ACT. Somebody has to.".

"Laura Norder" (as former ACT MP Deborah Coddington called it) is a safe topic for a right wing party. It's a social issue, easy to understand (although of all elections, 2008 should be one for debating the economy). Criminals are a very small percentage of voters (indeed the ones in prison don't have the right to vote at all), so ACT doesn't have to worry about "offending" them. Moreover, it's popular grist for the right-wing mill. I'm quite sure more than a few ACT members would agree with Garrett's stance in favour of capital punishment.

Trouble is, so many political parties agree with tough sentences for criminals that it's become almost a dead issue. Indeed, crime is what political scientists call a "valence" issue - no parliamentary parties disagree with the necessity of sentencing criminals - the question is only the extent. The opposite of a valence issue is a position issue - such as, say, tax cuts in the 2005 election. National supported tax cuts, Labour opposed them - a clear cut difference.

To make itself stand out against the crowd, ACT is naturally trying to position itself as the toughest on crime. That's why Hide told Braunias "we could put young offenders in cabins out in the wop-wops". No family group conferences here. Yet this isn't a lot different to National leader John Key's "boot camps" idea of last January. National has a lot more human and financial resources to sell this message. Moreover, it has more credibility in promoting it, because it is in all likelihood going to lead the formation of the next government. Moreover, ACT has to compete with similar messages from other right-wing parties such as New Zealand First (which despite everything still commands twice the support, in party vote terms, of ACT) and even left-wing parties such as Labour, which is keen not to seem soft.

From ACT's point of view, a more profitable strategy would be to take a position or even valence issue which is less occupied by competition. Possible substitute social-conservative issues include:
  • A hard-line stance on so-called Maori "privilege", still officially on ACT's books as "One Law for All" but tucked away in a bottom drawer. Reviving this would tap into the feelings of socially conservative voters who voted for National in 2005 and would build upon the many thousands of dollars National spent promoting on that campaign back then (National has since stepped away from this position, leaving the way clear for a niche party like ACT). The most plausible way of getting some quick fire votes in the lead-up to election day. However, the issue has faded in New Zealanders' minds since 2004. Would have been an excellent issue to push had Don Brash agreed with Sir Roger Douglas's invitation to stand for ACT this election.

  • Cutting back social welfare is another perennial hard-right issue. It's less well trodden than crime (Labour is keen to defend what's left of the Welfare State). National has stepped away from benefit cuts since the departure of Don Brash. A recession would, sadly, seem an ideal time to take issue with "dole bludgers".

  • Anti-immigration is central to the success of right-wing parties overseas, seen most recently in the success of fringe parties in Austria which last Sunday took a combined 30% of the party vote. In hard times, it's easy to find scapegoats for people's economic troubles and claiming unskilled immigrants are taking "Kiwis' jobs" is potentially credible. However a no-go area for ACT both because free-market ideology correctly sees immigration as a net gain for the economy (as seen by the benefits to the US economy of "illegals", without which the agricultural sector there would collapse) and due to the fact that Hide has a son of half-Chinese parentage and is genuinely finds racist slogans unpalatable. Another downside is that anti-immigration and particularly anti-Asian sentiment is associated with New Zealand First, not something with which ACT would like to be associated.

  • Pro hunting. Works for Sarah Palin. Not really offensive for anyone. There are a lot of fishermen too. Worked for the Outdoor Recreation party in 2002 which gained 4% of the party vote but failed on the 5% hurdle. But problem with credibility: impossible for ACT, still the party of "big business" for many, to push this wheelbarrow. Plus no real equivalent to the National Rifle Association to generate heat.

  • Anti-abortion. Works for Sarah Palin. However ceased to be a political issue in New Zealand in the 1970s. Don't go there.
A hard-line on law and order isn't going to cost ACT votes - but don't expect it to win all that many extra either.

Vote first here!

For those of you who can't wait to cast your vote on November 8, make sure you cast your vote in Douglas to Dancing's poll on ACT's party vote on the sidebar at left. There are six days to go. In the question I ask "realistically" what percentage of the party vote ACT will get. I thought this could be overwhelmed by ACT supporters hoping the party will get "7% or more" - but a check just now found that of the 12 votes cast (a modest success given the niche appeal of this blog), the most popular band was 4-4.9%.

I wonder if 4% has become ACT's new set of goalposts. The member e-newsletter pointed out this week that 4% would give ACT 5 MPs. A month out, this is still a realistic target - but ACT has an awful lot of work to do in a limited time-frame if it is to reach this target. With only a month to go the latest polls still put the party on 2% or less. In the final weeks, the party needs to gain credibility with a simple line - vote ACT, change the government and keep National honest.

MMP - it takes just TWO ticks

Amidst a lot of the usual pap there are some good gems of information in a Steve Braunias article in today's Sunday Star-Times. The setting is the campaign trail in Hide's Epsom electorate:
Hide, 51, leader of the Act Party, MP for Epsom, moved along the pavement with pretty little steps and a winning smile on his tanned, tight-skinned dial. He asked: "Vote for me?" He handed out Act leaflets. Few resisted. Many welcomed the chance to shake his hand. He was among friends; when Hide won Epsom in the last election, he beat his opponent, National's Richard Worth, at all six polling booths in Remuera.
My criticism of this strategy can be summed up in the three words "Vote for me?". Obviously it's important for ACT to have Hide campaign in Epsom and secure the party's "lifeline". And it's only responsible that Hide is not wanting to appear complacent and is campaigning hard. Yet it's clear that Hide is secure in the Epsom seat: the challenge this time around is getting the party vote. As Braunias points out, in 2005 fewer voters in Epsom gave ACT their party vote than the Greens. Given Epsom is probably an area where Hide and ACT-sympathies run deeper than most, it would seem obvious to campaign hard in 2008 for a "two ticks for ACT" (or preferably a more memorable pun involving "double ACT" etc.), especially in Epsom. In other words, don't just "vote for me" - but "vote for me AND give your party vote to ACT".

To make this clearer: in 2005, ACT received 34,469 party votes in total (nationwide). In Epsom, however, ACT gained just 1,237 party votes. By contrast, the National Party in Epsom alone received 21,310 votes - well over half of ACT's nationwide total!!! So if ACT and Hide managed to convince just half of all those voters who gave National their party vote to give it this time to ACT, the party would have some 45,000 party votes. I'm not sure exactly how the mathematics work but that's close to getting ACT another MP - especially if some more party votes come to ACT from up and down the country, as should be expected this time if more ACT-inclined voters believe their vote won't be wasted due to Hide being "safe" in Epsom.

Interestingly ACT's member e-newsletter is keen on essentially pointing out this fact, in a clear and quite punchy way.
If you want to see a change in government you have two choices.

You can either give your vote to National and ACT – Each is of equal value when it comes to changing the government.

But the real issue is not getting National over 50%. The issue is getting ACT and National over 50%.

Polls show that Rodney Hide will win Epsom so a Party vote for ACT is not a wasted vote.

Every party vote for ACT will count. Even a 4% party vote for ACT will send 5 MPs to parliament.

There is no 5% barrier to be reached.
How about giving voters, as well as members, a lesson in MMP?