Scientists tell us dark matter makes up much of the mass of the universe. They do not know what it is, but they know it plays a key role.
The dark matter in elections is apathy. If apathy were a political party, it would have more than 20 MPs.
Jacinda Ardern won the last election with the biggest mandate of any party since MMP began, with a near-record turnout of 81.54 per cent. Yet apathy got 18.46 per cent - the enrolled voters who did not vote. And another 200,000-plus people did not even enrol.
Pollsters know apathy is important, but there is no way to measure the likely non-vote.
However, candidates detect apathy: fewer people offer to deliver pamphlets, put up billboards, door-knock or donate.
All the signs point to apathy being the kingmaker of this election.
A political reporter said to me last week, “I cannot wait until this election is over. No one is saying anything new.”
I knew what she meant when I watched Winston Peters on TV. I first saw Winston on TV in 1975, saying much the same thing. In half a century, he has been a minister in three governments, and helped to create this Government.
Like dark matter, we can detect apathy indirectly.
The apathy in the Hamilton West byelection was extraordinary. Labour voters gifted the seat to National by staying home.
Crowds at public meetings are another guide. Christopher Luxon has been holding well-attended meetings, but with nothing like the numbers Sir John Key attracted.
Act, on its nationwide tour, is attracting larger audiences than in 2020, but smaller ones than Sir Roger Douglas’ meetings.
Labour appears to have abandoned public meetings in favour of unannounced appearances at markets.
There is no sign of any Chris Hipkins mania. His captain’s calls have disillusioned Labour activists. Labour needs those activists to get out the vote.
To win government, Labour must not just win in Auckland, but run up huge majorities. In Auckland Central, I needed at least 400 volunteers to turn out the vote. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Act voters are self-motivated and I did not need an election-day machine.
There is an objective measure of enthusiasm: money. Parties must declare their donations. For the 2023 election, Labour has declared $1.1 million, less than the Greens on $1.4m, and about the same as New Zealand First. In contrast, National has raised $8.2m and Act has a $4.2m war chest.
This column has warned Chris Hipkins that no replacement PM in the past 70 years has gone on to win. We said his only hope was to set out his vision and call a snap election. Now, Hipkins cannot run on his record of high inflation, an economy in recession, higher Government debt, spiralling crime and having lost four ministers, plus the Revenue Minister asking to be replaced.
Using focus groups to make campaign promises has failed. Many experiments work in the lab but not in the field. The GST announcement has been ridiculed by the left and the right. Not one voter is going to turn out because Labour has promised three tunnels under Auckland Harbour at a cost of up to $45 billion.
Unable to run on Labour’s record and with the party’s campaign promises having flopped, Hipkins has pledged a “vigorous” campaign. That is code for going negative. Last weekend’s personal attack on Winston Peters is just the start.
David Seymour had better put on a flak jacket. By election day, it will be understandable if voters think Hipkins has confused Seymour with Genghis Khan.
But negative campaigns can boomerang. Parties must stand for something - and Hipkins is running out of time to tell us what he is for. Advance voting begins in 33 days.
Labour’s remaining supporters are overwhelmingly women, and women hate personal attacks. We may see the lowest voter turnout since MMP, and Labour’s worst defeat.
It is that dark matter - apathy - that will defeat Labour.
Richard Prebble is a former leader of the Act Party and a former member of the Labour Party.