Death by Opinion Poll and Lame-Duck Leadership

I’ve written many times about the sense of déjà vu I frequently get when observing New Zealand politics. It might be some comfort to readers to consider the parallels between Jacinda Ardern and Kevin Rudd (remember that guy?), but there is another depressingly familiar narrative emerging.

Despite the fact that the Rudd government was almost from the very beginning notoriously dysfunctional and chaotic, Rudd still soared above even Ardern in the opinion polls for almost all of his first term. This was due in no small part to the plain hopelessness of the opposition.

There’s nothing like opinion polls to get the chattering classes’ gums beating.

Never mind that opinion polls are proving to be about as reliable as a Melbourne weather forecast. I’ve already written about how the opinion poll model seems irrevocably busted. Not that that matters to the media-elite chatterers: like old-fashioned town scolds, these are incorrigible gossips who thrive on a constant diet of rumour and fake news. It seems that the elite lives in terror that, if they stopped filling their little echo-chambers with a constant din of inane chatter, their brains might actually start working.

Opinion polls are a constant source of distraction for chatterers averse to actually thinking.

Unfortunately, though, political careers too often live and die by opinion poll. Even if a politician is decent and competent, the media chatterers will spin opinion polls into a deadly “narrative” that cripples careers. Case in point, Labor’s Simon Crean. Crean wasn’t a bad leader, but he never stood a chance against a relentless synergy of poor opinion polls and constant media babble about poor opinion polls, which only ensured that the next poll would be even worse.

Sometimes, though, polls and reality actually do correlate. When Malcolm Turnbull seized the Liberal party leadership early in Rudd’s first term, it was a schemozzle. Turnbull lurched hopelessly from one blunder to another and the Coalition’s polls sank and sank. Just to prove that it was no mere coincidence when Turnbull once again knifed his leader, this time in government, it all happened, all over again.

But, more important than the opinion polls was what was happening among the rank-and-file. As Turnbull and his coterie of “bedwetters” dragged the party further to the left, turning it into Greens-lite, the party’s base reacted with fury and disillusion.

It’s the behind-the-scenes polls the parties have done for them that make the most interesting reading though, with their focus groups and the like.

As National heads back into its caucus today after a three-week break there’ll be a lot of reflection as news of the Labour-commissioned UMR Research poll does the rounds…it’s National that’s bleeding and it looks set to haemorrhage, with growing whispers within the party that it’ll be Simon Bridges’ blood being spilled before too long. The party has dropped beneath the psychological barrier of 40 per cent, now sitting on 38.

It’s the focus groups that’ll concern National, with Bridges having about as much traction as a bald tyre. The last UMR poll apparently showed his unfavourable rating at more than 60 per cent, while those who favoured him were in the 20s.

Turnbull was Australia’s Simon Bridges to Rudd’s Jacinda Ardern. For both of them, what the party should be focusing on is not too-often-flawed opinion polls, but on what their own base is saying. Hell, they should just read the comments on Whaleoil.

The conclusion is that he can’t win against Jacinda Ardern – but then regardless of who holds the job there’s unlikely to be a change next year if history is anything to go by.

It might be more prudent to look at recent history, around the world, which is littered with left-establishment politicians trounced by the very “populists” despised by the chattering classes. Not to mention one-term wonders, on both sides. Voters are no longer content to stay rusted-on to either of two major establishment parties if they feel those parties are abandoning their bases.

National should take heed of how the Liberals fared against Rudd. Under the weak, bumbling Turnbull, the Liberals were on a hiding to nothing. Then they elected a leader with some old-fashioned mongrel. A political head-kicker who not only dragged the party back to its base but went for the incompetent parvenu Rudd’s jugular. Rudd went down like a wilted lettuce.

As much as Bridges bangs on about how lucky he is to have a caucus of talent there’s only one who seems to be solidifying her position, as she smiles sweetly insisting she’s just happy being the member for Papakura, which of course no one believes.

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