Winston Peters has already won the by-election campaign, totally outclassing National over the last month. He is overwhelmingly popular in Northland right now but this doesn’t necessarily guarantee he will win, and the final result could be closer than the polls suggest.
The promised "earthquake" from Winston Peters in Northland appears likely. All polling evidence points to the maverick politician romping home with a historic win, and a humiliating defeat for National. Last night's TVNZ poll has Peters with 53 per cent support against Osbourne's 36 per cent - see: Winston surges ahead in Northland by-election. And TV3's poll from the day before had Peters on 54 per cent against Osbourne's 34 per cent - see Patrick Gower's Northland by-election: Peters way out in front.
What's more, according to the iPredict trading website, National now only has A 17% chance of winning, compared to Peters' 84% chance of victory.
Clearly something quite spectacular has gone on in Northland, and now Peters looks like a winner. He's also the "fun candidate". These factors in by-elections can produce spectacular upsets.
In contrast, Duncan Garner says Peters' opponent looks like "a numpty". Garner (@Garner_Live) has succinctly summed the outcome up in a tweet: "5 reasons why Nats lose Northland; 1. Sabin secrecy. 2. Neglect. 3. Osborne a numpty. 4. Peters a brand. 5. Genuine protest vote. Over".
In a column, Garner says to Northland voters: "It's your ultimate protest vote. National stays in Government. You kick out the Nats from Northland for taking the region for granted. You get a loud opposition MP putting you on the map. National is still forced to follow through on its promises. And the common sense, mild mannered, non-threatening Peter Dunne holds a few more cards - which won't scare the conservative horses" - see: Vote Peters, Get Peter come Monday?.
And for more from Garner on why National is losing the electorate, see his column National's cynical and desperate bid for Northland.
For one of the best accounts of the Northland race, and what the likely outcome will be, see Vernon Small's must-read column Peters poised for Northland win. See also John Armstrong's very important account: Torrid battle for North plays into Peters' hand.
Small explains how Peters has "stayed disciplined, avoided damaging media fights, eschewed or toned down some of his go-to campaigning motifs, such as bashing immigration, and appealed as a moderate to those National voters crucial to a potential victory".
He points out that Peters' tactics have been very clever: "The first was to tell voters that backing him would not change the Government, just the way it operated. They could have him as their advocate with no risk of turfing out National or Key... But perhaps most cunning of all, he has offered himself on a sort of 'sale or return' basis. Voters could back him now and toss him out in a couple of years if they weren't satisfied".
Of course Peters has also had the luxury of being able to direct his message at National voters. Having locked up the Labour vote (and the rest of the anti-National vote) so early on, thanks to Andrew Little's swift concession, Peters then had the freedom to spend the rest of the campaign targeting soft National votes.
In contrast, National has made a litany of mistakes in its campaign. An arrogant beginning to the campaign quickly devolved into panic when early polls revealed Key's declaration that Peters had "no chance" was way off the mark. According to Colin James, National then "broke a cardinal rule of warfare and politics: if you panic, don't communicate it. The smell of panic emboldens the enemy and, in this case, wavering voters" - see: A by-election can have some meanings.
National candidate Mark Osborne's performance in the debate with Peters on TVNZ's Q+A was emblematic of just how out of his depth he has been - see Jane Bowron's review: Sideways glances from an off-course Osborne.
Why Peters might still lose
A Peters win tomorrow will be a huge upset in New Zealand politics - yet perhaps the bigger upset will be if he fails. And it's still possible. Although the opinion polls suggest an easy win, by-election polls always include a huge number of people who will not actually vote. So a large part of the result will be determined by how well the two sides manage to mobilise their potential supporters.
This is something I explained on TV3's Firstline this week - see:
. Likewise, John Armstrong explains that although there is huge backing for Peters, "the New Zealand First leader still has to translate that enthusiasm into actual votes" - see:
Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan has detailed just how ferocious the National machine will be in getting its people to the polls: "National will have a database profiling almost every voter in the electorate.
In the next eight days every 'Highly Likely' National voter in Northland will get a call from a party volunteer or Curia staffer reminding them that the government's majority is under threat, and advising them of where their closest advance-voting booth is. Scores of volunteers and young Nats will be mini-bused up from Auckland.
They'll door-knock possible soft-New Zealand First voters and repeat scripts that have been focus-grouped to induce anxiety and doubt about Winston Peters and New Zealand First among key demographics.
They'll be staffing booths in malls and canvasing pedestrians in town centers. They'll mail out personalised leaflets to harder-to-reach rural voters. Peters is a good campaigner but he can't compete with that. Short of any unforeseen catastrophe, National will win" - see: Grim up Northland.
Rob Salmond also predicts a National win, based on similar logic, and says his "best guess is that almost half the people in that poll who said they would vote ultimately won't" - see: 3news Northland poll. Salmond suggests that the protest voters Peters is attracting are likely to be fickle: "Saying 'screw the politicians, I'm for Winston' is easy when you're placed on the spot by a pollster who has called you up.
If you're not a political junkie, though, it takes a lot more effort to go to the trouble of actually casting a ballot. These apolitical protesters will disproportionately be among those who stay home".
In another post on the subject, Northland: Countdown-to-letdown, Salmond emphasises the huge imbalance in organising strength between the two candidates: "National has poured massive, massive resources into Northland, most of which won't show up in the financial returns. Polling, focus-grouping, canvassing, MP visits, Ministerial cars, taxpayer bribes, flying squads to drive people to the polls. All of it is off the by-election books.
I have heard rumours that National's total outlay is close to $250,000, not to mention the bill the taxpayer will carry. That resource buys a lot of organisation, which is where much of the early voting is coming from. Thousands upon thousands of Northland voters are getting calls from National canvassers and Curia staffers, pitching for Osborne and telling them how to vote. Nice young people from Auckland are showing up in their droves from Auckland to drive true-blue residents of Bay of Islands retirement homes to the polls. How sweet of them".
These types of arguments are also reinforced by Vernon Small, who says "National is hoping to defy the pundits with its on-the-ground organisation delivering its voters to the booths in numbers. That should not be underestimated" - see: Peters poised for Northland win.
A Peters victory is still likely
These points about voter turnout are important in forecasting what might happen tomorrow. However in the context of such an apparently commanding lead, Peters appears likely to pull off the win. As John Armstrong says, "Such electorate polls have to be treated with some caution. However, the sheer scale of Peters' lead overrides any such concern. If replicated on Saturday, the result will be akin to a massacre of National in what has been one of its safest seats" - see:
Essentially in agreement, Rob Hosking says that the concerns about opinion poll inadequacies "are not going to make up a 20% gap" - see:
. This is Hosking's forecast: "So don't rule out a National squeaker on Saturday night. It is, though, looking much less likely".
Also, there now appears to be a strong fashion for voting for Peters. The "comeback" candidate is going to be the beneficiary of the momentum around him. Voters like to back a winner, and they like to vote for what is fashionable, especially if the polls are telling them this. In political science terms, it's called the "bandwagon effect". This should not be underestimated in Peters' attempt to get his potential supporters to the voting booths.
Another reason for doubting National's "get-out-the-vote" supremacy is that the party's canvassing information is likely to be out-of-date and not very fine-tuned. Accurate and up-to-date information is challenging to produce for parties at the best of times, and until now Northland has been considered so safe for National that the electorate canvassing will not have been as thorough as in more marginal seats.
This is particularly true when there is panic about a possible loss (as there is clearly now with National). Activists may use old lists of 'supporters' who may have, in fact, changed allegiance. The risk is that National may be mobilising voters who are normally loyal voters but who are repelled by talk of Mike Sabin's personal issues or may relish the chance to take the Nats down a peg or two by voting for Peters.
The polls also suggest that Peters has not only been very effective at uniting the anti-National vote behind him, he has crucially swung a significant chunk of National voters behind him. That makes it very tricky for the National Party "ground game" to be as effective as it normally is. It would also be safe to assume that older National Party supporters would be more likely to swing to Peters. They are also the most likely to vote.
The aftermath of tomorrow's upset
Given that a win by either candidate will be an upset, tomorrow's result will be given serious analysis, with postmortems and significant blame apportioned. Even if National pulls through, there will be some very negative prognoses about the state of the party.
Two must-read accounts of what has been going on in National at the moment are put forward by Matthew Hooton in his column,
, and Selwyn Manning in his blog post,
Both items provide supposedly National-insider analysis of the party and events leading up to its by-election debacle. They suggest that National has some considerable internal problems that will blight the party over the near future.
There will certainly be a day or reckoning for some National politicians as a result of the by-election, and Tracy Watkins says that "If National loses, the knives will be out" - see: Reputations riding on Northland outcome. A loss could be seen as a tipping point: "It is also the fear that it is the start of a slippery slope. That it could come to represent a turning point. A mood for change. The tide going out".
Cameron Slater also suggests that significant change is needed in National: "If they lose, then reputations are at stake...firstly John Key's...the teflon man has finally lost something.... "if John Key and his so-called team don't lift their game then there frankly needs to be some blood on the floor" - see: An email from a Northland voter
The by-election has also illustrated some of the ongoing ideological shifts in National, and how the party is no longer a neoliberal one, and Danyl Mclauchlan very astutely discusses what this means in his blog post, Grim up Northland
But perhaps we shouldn't ascribe too much meaning to one by-election. National Party commentator Liam Hehir argues that a National loss shouldn't be taken too seriously (and he predicts his party will hold onto the seat) - see: Predicting the Northland by-election too hard.
A Peters win will certainly change the configurations of the current Parliament. Claire Trevett provides details of the likely New Zealand First list MP who will be brought in by Peters - see: Hairdresser next in line to cut a dash in Parliament if Peters wins. Colin James examines what Peter Dunne's increased power from a Peters victory will mean - see: A by-election can have some meanings. Audrey Young explains how a Peters win could affect outcomes of bills. And Claire Trevett shows how the by-election is likely to produce further debate about the use and abuse of taxpayer resources for electioneering - see: National on high horse over use of BMW steeds
Finally, for some by-election laughs, see James Griffin's Game-of-Thrones-style Winston is coming, Ben Uffindell's Winston Peters' hand-made Lego bridge probably won't suffice, say Northlanders, and Toby Manhire's Northland's grand circus in review. Also, I've updated my blog post of Cartoons of the Northland by-election