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IF YOU'D invested some of your nest egg in the recently privatised electricity company shares you would have had an unpleasant surprise last week.
The value of shares in Genesis and Mighty River Power, along with the fully privatised Contact Energy all twitched lower on the share market.
This had nothing to do with these companies' projected profits; it was caused by a political poll.
Roy Morgan, an Australian research company which publishes a monthly poll of around 1000 Kiwi voters, detected a significant 6 per cent slump in support for the National Party and a 5.5 per cent surge in support for Labour and the Greens.
Roy Morgan concluded: "If a national election were held now the latest New Zealand Roy Morgan Poll shows that the potential Labour/Greens alliance would be elected."
This poll was enough to spook a group of investors who, anticipating a change of government and the Labour/Green power policy, took their money and ran.
Political polling was rare in New Zealand until the mid-1980s.
Before that the small industry was dominated by now-defunct Heylen Research which conducted infrequent, expensive face-to-face polls in the lead-up to general elections.
On my return from a spell of employment with the Australian Labor Party (ALP), I co-founded with the now-Hawkes Bay regional councillor Peter Beaven and John Utting (an Australian pollster) a polling company we called Insight Market Research.
While working for the ALP, I'd discovered a Perth company which had perfected telephone polling.
What impressed me most was an Election Day poll which predicted the final outcome of the state election with stunning accuracy.
It was not hard to sell the concept to the New Zealand Labour Party.
Within a couple of years New Zealand politicians had data streams just as good as their Aussie counterparts and they quickly got hooked.
Political market research comes in three basic flavours: Focus groups, benchmark polls and tracking polls.
Focus groups are small gatherings of around 10 voters facilitated by a researcher who leads discussion around policies and people and are used to test policy ideas and advertising strategies.
Benchmark polls are large telephone surveys with up to 1000 participants designed to gauge the support for parties, discover election issues and to look for "hot buttons" which affect voting behaviour. Parties will typically commission benchmark polls only once or twice a year.
Right now the big parties will be funding tracking polls in the lead-up to the September 20 General Election.
These polls typically have a sample base of 200 respondents per evening and two nights of results are aggregated sequentially and reported to party leaders early in the morning.
Tracking polls can be extremely sensitive and I recall that Labour's tracking showed an overnight surge for New Zealand First following John Key's "cup of tea" with John Banks when Winston came up in the leaked conversation.
Beaven and I sold our shares in Insight Research many years ago, but the company still flourishes under the name UMR and still provides its services to New Zealand and Australian parties.
A company called Curia, founded and led by long-time National Party activist, David Farrar, provides the same polling services to Key and the National Party.
Farrar is a pleasant, interesting man who was once arrested in connection to a spoof press release which announced the supposed assassination of former MP Michael Laws and that the then-Prime Minister was among 10,000 suspects.
You have to like the bloke.
You can rely on the fact that both Key and David Cunliffe with be hovering over their emails as dawn breaks for the latest intelligence from their overnight tracking and it's fun to interpret their behaviour in the light of that knowledge. Just recently Key, obviously riled by some attack or another, proclaimed that Labour was tracking in the low 20s in National's polling thereby revealing the truth of what I've just written.
Recent attacks on Winston Peters by National Party politicians almost certainly tell us that National's tracking polls indicate New Zealand First's support cresting the 5 per cent threshold.
Unlike Key, Helen Clark always played this card very close to her chest, and even as Labour Party campaign manager and president, I was seldom in the tracking poll loop.
On election night 2002 just before I was to appear on TV1, Helen phoned and told me the previous night's UMR findings.
It predicted the result to within half a per cent.
# Mike Williams is a former Labour Party president who grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is a director of Auckland Transport and CEO of the NZ Howard League.