0.1 percentage points. That’s all it would have taken in Thursday’s Taxpayers’ Union Curia poll for NZ First to hold the balance of power had it been election day.
Had Act’s result in that poll been 12.9 per cent instead of 13 per cent, then National and Act would only have mustered 60 seats between them.
They would have needed at least one more MP from somewhere to get a majority.
NZ First’s rising in the polls has unsurprisingly resulted in a dramatic reaction from Act’s David Seymour.
Act ran a billboard ad last week with a photo of a grinning Winston Peters on it and the words “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.
The phrase is from the Who’s song, Won’t Get Fooled Again. In the song, it is prefaced by the words “Then I’ll get on my knees and pray”.
That is just what Seymour and Luxon will be doing (Seymour presumably less literally than Luxon): praying that Peters does not end up being needed.
It is a mutual disaffection: Act and NZ First have a fair bit in common but loathe each other.
It is not a great surprise NZ First has made it to this point.
The current success of the minor parties has stemmed from a great shrug of indifference to the larger parties, National and Labour.
The Greens and Act have benefited from that. Both have also deserved it: they have been putting up interesting and pretty solid policies over the past few months.
However, not all the voters fed up with the two big fish are going to be comfortable with going to the right or left. Some want a middle option, and at the moment NZ First is the loudest in that space. The Opportunities Party (TOP) has not yet managed to get itself into consideration.
As a result, Act’s campaign has apparently become as much about trying to keep Peters out as getting into Government itself.
It is also an unwelcome development for National leader Christopher Luxon, just as things were getting to the point of feeling confident that he could deliver a tidy two-party deal to the voters.
There is great enthusiasm within Act and in some of National’s backers for Luxon to rule out NZ First in a future government – the hope being that it would mean Peters did not make it back in.
They should not waste too much time on that, enjoyable as it is watching all the fireworks go off.
Peters is a master at spinning not being wanted into a political benefit. He relishes taking on the job of being the spanner in the works.
If Act and National can maintain their current lead or grow it, the chances are higher that NZ First would go into Opposition than into the kingmaker role.
However, that 0.5 point figure illustrates just how close things still are and what a big difference even a small shift in votes will do.
It is why Labour is not giving up yet.
Labour has been quick to let it be known that its own pollsters, Talbot Mills, have shown it is in a healthier position than the Curia poll has it. That poll, done for Talbot Mills corporate clients, will be sent out next week and no doubt quickly leaked to the media.
It will not want the perception that its goose is cooked to take hold because after that point, the momentum can be hard to change.
They back Hipkins to be able to best Luxon on the heat of a campaign trail.
Strategists on the right are also worried about that, given Luxon’s inexperience and the gaffes he has made, most recently failing to memorise numbers in his own policy ahead of media interviews on it.
Election debates are 20 times more intense and fraught than that – and once confidence is knocked it can be hard to regain.
Some in Labour are also watching Peters’ return to the right side of the 5 per cent threshold with some glee. Peters has ruled Labour out as a future governing partner and so that makes him very firmly National’s problem.
The more Peters is in the game, the harder it is for National to offer a clean-cut alternative to what it has called the “coalition of chaos” on Labour’s side. Its own side would be looking even hairier.
At least Labour’s coalition options – the Greens and Te Pāti Māori - aren’t spending more time taking potshots at each other than at their political rivals.
Elections come down to leaders, policies, how competent voters perceive a leader or party to be, and a general vibe about whether it is time to change or keep to the same team for the sake of stability.
This election seems on track to become one of the general vibe ones.
There is a large group of “Not Labour” voters out there trying to find another home. There remains a significant chunk of the population who are angry about something. It used to be Covid. Now it is a more general frustration – the cost of living, the crime, anything. And for many there seems to be a view that provided Labour is out, everything will miraculously be okay again, or at least well on the way to it.
It’s very hard for a governing party to combat general frustration given they are the ones people instinctively blame for it, whether it is justified or not.
Anger or frustration at a government can be a powerful force to motivate people to vote against a party.
The risk is not only those who might vote elsewhere in anger, but that Labour’s own voters don’t bother voting at all.
Until earlier this year, Labour stood a good chance of pushing for the stability vote.
It was priming for an election campaign in which it would have pitched its experience at governing through tough times against the rookie line-up on the same side.
It is not a bad pitch – or at least it wasn’t then. Through a series of missteps and dramas, it has since undermined its own ability to play that card. National has also very successfully managed to seed the perception – and in some cases the reality – that Labour has a problem with delivering.
That does not mean that the experience card doesn’t still exist.
National’s own internal wobbles have faded in people’s memories since Luxon took over. However, National in 2023 is in a similar position to Labour in 2017: it has a very small caucus and few in its top line-up have Cabinet experience.
Act also has limited governing experience: Seymour is the only one who is not a first-term MP and Seymour has not been a minister.
That leaves an opening for Peters to play the experience card again as well.
Peters once described that 2017–2020 Labour-led Government as the least experienced he had ever been part of. A post-election National Government would be equally inexperienced in terms of time served in Parliament and Cabinet, including Luxon.
National and Luxon have pitched the usual hyperbolic messaging, promising to get everything back on track. Take them at face value and no kids would fail school, nobody would wait for a hip-op, nobody would be living in motels because lots of houses would miraculously pop up overnight for them to live in instead.
It’s easy to depict perfection on a billboard. But delivering it overnight is simply not going to happen. There would inevitably be bumps at the beginning as that government realises the difficulties in turning the massive public service from one track to another.
Voters will be aware of that to some extent. Whether they care is another matter.