Every election campaign is akin to a theatrical production with leading roles, support cast, extras, some bit players and the backstage crew.
2020 has been no exception - but in one of the lead roles there has been the need to call on two understudies in quick succession, and there was a gatecrasher of an actor that was bound by no script, rules or laws: Covid-19.
It was New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who best articulated the turmoil faced by every party bar Labour. It was, he said, "the worst campaign environment that I've been involved in".
It was a pitiful excuse of a campaign, hamstrung by Covid-19.
It is not the first time an external factor has dominated and disrupted an election campaign.
In 2008, the global financial crisis was the dominant factor.
In 2014, there was the double hit of Nicky Hager's 'Dirty Politics' book, and Kim Dotcom's entry to the scene, setting up the Internet Party and hosting the Moment of Truth event.
In 2017, the shot of adrenalin came from within: It was the rise of Jacinda Ardern to the leadership of Labour.
But none of those caused anything like the disruption of Covid-19.
The pandemic saw a seismic shift in the polls between March and May as National's support plummeted from the mid 40s to below 30 per cent in polling, and Labour's rocketed up above 50 per cent.
Covid-19's second appearance on August 11 led to the first election date of September 19 being abandoned and the first campaign came to a screaming halt.
The second campaign
Aucklanders could only peek out from level 3 as the political leaders resumed their campaigns in the safer level 2 territories around New Zealand.
Those leaders largely stayed away from Auckland, especially in the first few weeks of the campaign.
Even when those restrictions dropped, politicians were wary of resuming things such as public meetings because of the public perception.
As much attention went on breaches of physical distancing as policies.
National Party leader Judith Collins was castigated for a close encounter with a baby – and after that made her own MPs stand a metre away from her during press conferences.
Ardern herself got burned: A crowd selfie at Massey University during level 2 resulted in her apologising.
But for Ardern the campaign has been as much a lap of honour for the past three years as a bid to secure a further three years.
Her campaign visits included reminders of the cornerstone moments of those three years – the disasters that made her leadership.
There were visits to Whakaari White Island first responders and to Al Noor Mosque.
Otherwise her campaign had the hue of former Prime Minister John Key's 2011 and 2014 campaigns.
The polls indicated only the bare minimum was required, and there was no need to take chances.
So Ardern's campaign has been as risk-free and limited as possible.
The large public meetings that are her forte were absent thanks to Covid-19, taking away her ability to deliver stirring speeches.
Instead her schedule is mainly made up of visits to businesses and organisations. A few public walkabouts started to enter the calendar after areas outside Auckland moved to level 1 again.
But significant portions of her campaign were behind closed doors.
Normally the media trail behind the leaders on workplace visits, watching them look at things from insulation to kumara. Not this time.
Ardern's schedules regularly featured the words "a closed tour of the facility" or "the remainder will be closed".
There were usually only two events a day and weekends - usually a fruitful time to meet voters who were closeted away at work during the week – were often put to little use.
Other days were taken out altogether by Cabinet meetings, or preparations for Cabinet meetings.
Early on, Ardern also ruled out doing any of the usual human interest pieces in the media, turning down a raft of requests.
It was a different story for Collins, and an unguarded moment in Matamata told us why.
Collins was visiting her childhood home of Matamata the day after a good performance in the TVNZ debate.
She was having a coffee with Nik Given, the man who tattooed Collins on his thigh.
"One chance," she told him. "One chance. That's it."
Collins has a lot of lost ground to make up to take that chance and the campaign reflects that.
Her campaign was a more packed and varied schedule – her days were longer, very few events were closed to the media and the more "human interest" pieces Collins could do the better.
She took time out of the public eye to prepare for the debates and for filming advertising.
For Collins the first television debate was the highlight so far. It showed she could match – if not better – Ardern in at least one forum.
It proved to be what Collins needed for momentum, enough of a morale booster to pep her up.
Nor was she beyond having a dig at Ardern's campaign, saying at one point she was working every day to secure an election win: "You won't see me taking hours off in a day just to do nothing or other. You'll see me working every day."
Covid crashes the party
A campaign requires more than public appearances, and Covid-19 also had an impact on every party's policies, cramping back the usual wish lists.
Covid-19 had brought a couple of friends to the campaign: Debt and deficits as far as the eye could see.
It has meant the contest between the finance spokesmen Grant Robertson and Paul Goldsmith has often been more interesting than the debate between the party leaders.
Labour claimed National would cut public services to pay for it, while National claimed Labour would tax its way out of it. Pick your poison.
Labour's "safety first" campaign meant it has shed many of its more ambitious – and controversial – policies such as tax reform, as well as some it had failed to deliver on in its first term.
Climate change is still a policy area, but Labour is much more quiet about it than in 2017.
Ardern labelled it the "Covid election" and said Labour would not have its usual tranche of policies because all effort and money was being put into Covid.
But some vestiges of normal political debate remained – not least the differences between Labour and National over tax and debt.
The campaign started to fire the week of September 15.
A taxing moment
That was when National presented its surprise: A proposal for $4.7 billion in temporary tax cuts that were worth between $8 and $58 a week to workers. It had previously ruled out any income tax cuts beyond indexation of the thresholds.
It was its Hail Mary policy: A bid to try to get some momentum back and generate some interest in its side of the campaign.
It also meant there was now a real choice for voters – and a marked point of contrast between the two parties.
Both parties' policies were aimed at putting more money into workers' pockets – the difference was in which workers, and who would pay for it.
National was targeting those on the average wage with tax cuts, while Labour was targeting those on low wages with a rise in the minimum wage and the living wage for government contractors.
Ardern had been burned before on tax: In 2017 National's attacks over the uncertainty of Labour's tax plans stalled her march up the polls.
She has since abandoned all plans for a capital gains tax and instead Labour offered up a new top tax rate on those earning more than $180,000 – expected to raise a paltry $500 million a year.
But the potential impact of National's tax promises were overshadowed by a return guest star from 2017 – the so-called "fiscal hole".
This time Labour had found a hole in National's books – a $4b shortfall in its numbers for Super Fund contributions because it had used estimates from May instead of the pre-election economic and fiscal update (Prefu).
Robertson ran rampant with attacks on this hole. National spent almost a fortnight defending itself before it had the wit to point out that at least it had a fiscal plan, and ask where Labour's full fiscal plan was.
Ardern has been careful not to count her chickens before they hatch. But in the third week before the election she showed she was starting to entertain the prospect of Labour governing alone.
Perhaps concerned Labour voters would decide to vote strategically to "save" the Greens or NZ First, she sent a clear message that governing alone "will make it easier for us to progress with our recovery plan for the economy".
It was an obvious reference to the "handbrake" boasts of NZ First and perhaps also the Greens.
In 2017, NZ First MP Shane Jones referred to the pipiwharauroa (the shining cuckoo) as the symbol for the Government his party was about to anoint.
It did indeed signal a new spring for Labour. Alas, NZ First putting its eggs into Labour's nest has not worked out as hoped.
Act on the move
Act's David Seymour has found himself in the unusual position of being the most cheerful figure on the campaign trail as his party tracks upwards toward the 10 per cent mark.
The Green Party is not quite in the same dire straits as NZ First, but nor is it completely safe. It has plenty of room for itself – the only party in Parliament that is campaigning for major tax reform.
Despite that, its campaign has been surprisingly desultory – the wind taken out of its sails again by Ardern's own environmental focus.
The parties on the outside are also trying to get a foot in the door. The Mana Party of 2017 and Internet Party of 2014 are no longer, but TOP (the Opportunities Party) is still there, as are the New Conservatives.
Others have also sprung up – including some fertilised by Covid-19.
They include the Public Party, led by Billy Te Kahika who campaigned against lockdowns and vaccinations.
There was the alliance between former National MP Jami-Lee Ross' Advance Party and the Public Party in a bid to get them into Parliament.
But, as Peters said, this campaign could not be worse for NZ First's usual style of campaigning.
The New Zealand First leader's art is in going to multiple small meetings around the country and siphoning up voters in small handfuls. Retirement villages, race courses, and speeches in public places are his thing.
He has tried – touring up the country in his bus and talking where he can find a crowd. The party's social media is also impressive.
But physical distancing and crowd-size limits have made things hard and many of his voters have decamped to Labour or Act.
Peters has opted for the pugilism and pork barreling: Dispensing money in the Provincial Growth Fund to Northland projects in a bid to help Jones win the Northland seat.
After spending three years bashing up National, Peters has swapped that punching bag out for Labour.
Before Parliament even ended he started delivering his upper cuts - exercising the ability to "agree to disagree" over key Covid-19 decisions: Including the mid-September decision to keep areas outside of Auckland at level 2.
He delivered an "Orewa" one-law-for-all speech, revealing NZ First had threatened to collapse the coalition over Labour's plans to cut a deal over Ihumatao. Nor was he simply big-noting: Ardern later said she did not reject what he had said.
His pitch is that NZ First can moderate the "left's" excesses. This involved depicting a Labour–Greens Government as some kind of horror show.
"Take out some insurance," is his catch-cry again.
In 2017, Peters blamed the rise of Ardern for NZ First dropping back in the polls from above 10 per cent to its election night result of 7.2 per cent.
It had happened, he said, too late in the piece for NZ First to alter its campaign to counter the effect she had.
He said the party would be better prepared to counter the unexpected next time. This time he is facing the double whammy of Covid-19 and Ardern.
Covid-19 has proved to be a bigger "unexpected" than anyone could prepare for.
The turning points:
May 22: Todd Muller rolls Simon Bridges as National Party leader after two polls showing National around 30 per cent.
July 14: Judith Collins is elected National Party leader after Todd Muller steps down on mental health grounds.
August 6: Parliament adjourns for the election campaign.
August 8: Labour Party has its campaign launch.
August 11: Four community cases of Covid-19 are reported, ending a 102-day stretch of no community cases. Campaigns are suspended.
August 12: Auckland moves to level 3 lockdown, rest of NZ to level 2.
August 17: Jacinda Ardern delays election from September 19 to October 17, Parliament reconvenes.
August 30: Auckland shifts to level 2.5, limits on "mass gatherings".
September 2: Parliament adjourns again. The campaign starts again.
September 16: Pre-election fiscal update shows impact of Covid-19 on debt/deficits.
September 17: National Party unveils $4.5b temporary tax cuts.
September 19: National Party virtual campaign launch. Labour's Grant Robertson reveals $4b hole in National's books.
September 23: Auckland shifts to level 2, rest of country to level 1.
October 3: Advance voting starts. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern casts vote.
October 17: Election Day.