In seven of the past eight New Zealand elections, the politician tracking ahead in the preferred prime minister polls has gone on to lead the next government. Does this mean that personality beats policies when it comes to how our country is led and managed?
There have been three prime ministerial winners since 1999. Helen Clark was an average 2 per cent ahead of Jenny Shipley in the last month of polling before the 1999 election. She formed the next government. Clark went on to put a more substantial margin between her and Bill English (2002) and then Don Brash (2005) in the pre-election preferred PM polls. She again led the government after both elections.
John Key was ahead in the pre-election preferred PM stakes coming up to the 2008 election – by an average 2 per cent. He formed the government, and then led by crushing margins in the preferred PM polls before the elections of 2011 (Phil Goff) and 2014 (David Cunliffe).
In the only exception to this guideline of "preferred PM wins the election", Jacinda Ardern was behind Bill English by an average of 3 per cent in the polls immediately before the 2017 election. It was a close thing – in the 11 polls after Ardern took over from Andrew Little as Labour leader, she was ahead of English on six. She was well ahead of Judith Collins as the preferred PM before the 2020 election – and she went on to lead the first one-party government of the MMP era.
What moves some voters to decide that a particular MP (or existing PM) has what it takes to be PM? Some voters may complete a score card of the policies on offer, weigh them according to core values, and decide. Forgive me sounding cynical, but that exercise is more likely to be an after-the-fact rationalisation of an emotional decision.
Some voters stick with an established voting habit. Family tradition, the influence of social networks, and voter personality contribute to what marketers call "lazy loyalists" – they stick with their brand. The research (in different countries) indicates that liberal voters are more "agreeable" – less hard-headed and more caring about their fellow team-members. Conservative voters are more "conscientious" – the sort of people who plan, act and get things done. These researchers found that personality differences accounted for 16 per cent of voters' decisions. For context, age and gender accounted for 3 per cent of voting behaviour.
What is it about politician's personality that might influence voters' decision? Working from a database covering 157 leaders around the world over 81 elections, where the contesting politicians were rated by more than 1800 independent scholars, Alessandro Nai has found that the perception of politicians' conscientiousness and their "open-mindedness" (being open to varied view points) contributes to election success. Also helpful was a bit of "dark side" personality – an inclination to break rules and act selfishly.
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Obviously, that is an average result. Do voters' emotions incline them to go for different candidates in different times? Research in the EU (over 140 elections up to 2019) found that economic growth contributes about 6.5 per cent towards voters going for the incumbent politicians. Happiness in general contributed around 9 per cent to voters giving the incumbents another go. Unhappy people are more likely to vote for challengers, contributing to the rejection of incumbents. A fascinating study by Federica Liberini and her colleagues of voters in the UK who had recently been bereaved found that they tended to vote against incumbents.
In recent times, with many voters in rust belt America or northern England having lost jobs, and the hope of finding suitable alternatives, this unhappiness would have contributed to an anti-incumbent surge. To be a credible contender in this environment, the challenger must be actively antagonistic. No surprise that Nai, in another piece of research, found that "strongman" leaders – who had successfully displaced more establishment people (think Bolsonar, Erdogan and Trump) – tended to be low on the "agreeableness" aspect of personality.
As of 2020, New Zealand voters were more likely to be relieved than upset, so this dynamic would not have been in play. Instead, a large proportion of voters preferred one of the more "agreeable" politicians around.
Can we look ahead to 2023? If politics operated according to a predictable cycle, we would expect that Ardern, like Helen Clark and John Key before, would win a third time, and then lose to an upstart challenger in the fourth election in 2026. If New Zealand's health and economy deteriorate, that loss might come sooner.
What strategy will contribute to the challenger winning? The winning style in an unhappy scenario is likely to be aggressive and a bit nasty. However, if many of the voters are doing well and feel that things are heading in the right direction, the challenger might be advised to emphasise their "getting-it-done" or conscientious credentials.
Winston Peters dropped out of sight in the pre-2020 preferred PM polls, but before that was a regular, single-figure contender (and the Queen-maker for Ardern after the 2017 election). The new third contender is David Seymour, which might be a factor for National's PM challenger in 2023 or 2026. Or Seymour could be a challenger for PM in his own right.
• Stewart Forsyth is an organisational psychologist and executive coach and also the author of "21 Remarkable People".