With the exception of 1999, every MMP election has been extremely close. Even in 2002, when National crashed to 20.93 per cent, there was a mathematical chance of a National-NZ First-Act-United Future Government until the final bell.

Nothing comparable to National's tribulations in Helen Clark's first term is happening in Jacinda Ardern's.

Fifteen years after Don Brash's Orewa speech restored National's fortunes and 12 years since the launch of John Key's smiley-wavy alternative, the party continues to poll at 45 per cent, just a couple of points away from governing alone.

Such high polling over many years and three leadership changes is near miraculous. Whatever is said about the lost opportunities of Key's Government, neither he nor Steven Joyce can be accused of leaving National's brand in anything other than outstanding shape.

Advertisement

Neither Jacindamania nor Labour's $20 billion Budget spend-up has dragged more than a vanishingly small number of voters across the crucial blue-red line.

National is polling almost exactly the same as before Ardern's elevation in August. In polling terms, she has done nothing but cannibalise her left.

Ardern will be as aware as anyone how vulnerable she is.

Modelling, published on the Labour-aligned The Standard of 2000 potential election results derived from this week's polls, suggests she has no more than a 50 per cent probability of a second term.

The outlook looks brighter for Simon Bridges.

The new National leader has yet to fire. His performances in question time have sometimes been pedestrian and — as Ardern charges — "shouty".

He is yet to fully learn the knack of turning his radio interviews to the topics he wants to talk about. Both he and his senior team spend too much time defending the Key-English-Joyce regime and not enough challenging the Coalition's performance and explaining how a Bridges Government would differ from both.

Paula Bennett's over-the-top antics against the Speaker's flawed disciplinary methods made everyone involved look ridiculous.

Advertisement
Neither Jacindamania nor Labour's $20 billion Budget spend-up has dragged more than a vanishingly small number of voters across the crucial blue-red line. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Neither Jacindamania nor Labour's $20 billion Budget spend-up has dragged more than a vanishingly small number of voters across the crucial blue-red line. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Bridges' regional tour might have best been delayed until the current parliamentary recess. Outside the provinces, he has seemed missing in action for the past month.

Looking ahead, though, this month's arrival of The Baby may offer the Government the pluses of more cover stories about Ardern and Clarke Gayford, but it also comes with the minuses of her absence from day-to-day politics and the risks associated with Winston Peters' prime ministership.

Further out, National can be even more quietly confident.

The Coalition's measurable promises of a billion trees, $3 billion for the regions, a net 100,000 new houses and materially reducing child poverty as measured by the Children's Commissioner are all set to fail. As it becomes impossible to hide the lack of progress on these fronts, expect ministers to cut corners and for scandals to arise.

Having been promised nirvana but delivered nothing, nurses and teachers are legitimately aggrieved.

Heading into election year, NZ First will need to find a formula to withdraw from the Coalition and return to its core business of attacking the establishment without causing an early election.

As the Greens also dance with death around the 5 per cent threshold, expect party activists to demand new co-leader Marama Davidson and high-flying backbencher Golriz Ghahraman to boldly differentiate the party from Labour from the far-left.

The Coalition's dilemma is this: such antics are necessary for NZ First and the Greens to have any hope of being back in 2020 but they also risk pushing the crucial 40,000-odd voters, who will decide the election, from Labour to National.

Whatever happens, NZ First looks doomed.

The most likely outcome is the Greens scraping back but at the expense of fatally wounding Labour's reputation for stability and competence among median voters.

Even better for National is the second-most likely outcome: a two-party Parliament, making National's existing slim lead over Labour of crucial importance.

While arguably ill-timed, Bridges' regional tour has helped him further refine his retail political skills which saw him defeat Winston Peters in Tauranga in 2008 and test lines for the national media.

All talk of National trying to set up new client parties is fanciful.

Both the idea of a cool hipster, right-leaning blue-green tech party, or a conservative Christian ensemble, risk taking a small but essential number of voters off National but failing to get into Parliament on the night.

Businesses quickly opened their wallets to Labour the day Ardern became leader, playing catch up.

Many rightly continue to bias their donations and attention to the governing team. But the polls suggest the best strategy is to keep lines of communication open to both sides.