It's hard to believe the PM's long-delayed trip to Auckland could set her backwards politically.
She'd dodged the city so long it was always more of a rescue mission than a brownie-points-winning exercise. But it was still salvageable. She could still turn her famous empathy towards hurting Aucklanders and at least neutralise the sense she'd abandoned the city.
That didn't happen.
The PM made it look like she really didn't want to be there.
She clocked up a total of only two official visits. One to a Pasifika vaccination centre. The other to an engineering business that hadn't even closed during the lockdown.
That hardly sent the message that Jacinda Ardern was there to listen to the Auckland businesspeople most impacted by the lockdown. On that morning, hairdressers, restaurants, bars and cafes were still closed and remain thus for who-really-knows-how-long.
And then, a few short hours later, she was out on her personal Air Force flight. The optics sucked. The PM looked tone-deaf and out of touch.
And she looked scared. There were no walkabouts to personally thank the voters "doing it tough" for the rest of the country. She's usually brilliant at meeting people. Remember the hyped Jacindamania crowds of both election campaigns?
There will almost certainly have been security concerns around anti-vax protesters. But probably the bigger concern would have been the possibility of very normal but very upset Aucklanders giving her a telling off. Footage of that on the evening news would have been a political disaster.
The ban on walkabouts hinted the PM's people knew the mood had changed. Two polls the next day confirmed it.
For the third month in a row, Labour has fallen in the polls. Curia has the party at 39 per cent, Talbot Mills Research has it at 41 per cent. Both are still respectable numbers. Both still put Labour in the box seat to win 2023 with the Greens. But both show the party is losing supporters. It's a big drop from 48 per cent in six months.
The bigger worry for Labour should be the changing opinion on the direction of the country in the Curia poll. For the first time since July 2008, more Kiwis think the country is headed in the wrong direction than in the right direction. It's a tiny majority of 1 per cent. That's margin of error stuff. But the trend is long and strong. It's been dropping all year. January started with a net 53 per cent of people believing the country was headed in the right direction. It's declined almost every month since.
That date of July 2008 is important. That was four months before Helen Clark lost the election.
The trend started early this year but it's the lockdown that really soured the mood. The country's first reaction when we went into lockdown in August was to turn to Labour. Then things changed.
According to the TMR poll, the lockdown eroded the collective view of the economy, dragged down Jacinda Ardern's preferred PM ratings, and really knocked perceptions of the Government's Covid response. That last metric fell massively from a positive rating of 65 per cent in August to 46 per cent in November.
This isn't entirely unexpected. This is our longest and hardest lockdown yet. It's knocked the national pride in New Zealand's Covid response. It also exposed how the Government had wasted 18 months instead of increasing ICU beds, rushing vaccine supply in and preparing for an inevitable life with covid.
Labour will be hoping a good summer break will put this behind us and stop the bad mood. And they might be right. Come 2022, if we've had a good summer and come back to a semi-normal work, school and social life, we might forget how badly let down some of us feel.
But then, the worst might not actually be behind us. We might still be hit by inflation troubles, an even tighter labour market, a Covid wave in winter, and more examples of failure to deliver.
The PM remains Labour's strongest asset. She can and should help shift the sour mood by fronting up, not running away.