Epsom and Ohariu

Tracy Watkins reports:

National looks set to throw ACT a fresh lifeline in Epsom and do a deal with Peter Dunne in Ohariu despite polls suggesting it could govern alone after November 26.

Prime Minister John Key has given his clearest indication yet that National will tacitly endorse ACT leader Rodney Hide in Epsom to save ACT from certain electoral death as it struggles to rate much above 1 per cent in most polls.

He signalled a similar strategy in Ohariu, which Mr Dunne has comfortably held on to under his UnitedFuture party banner since 1996, though his majority has been slowly whittled down to just over 1200 from more than 20,000 in 1999.

“The primary emphasis [in Epsom] will almost certainly be a party vote campaign,” Mr Key said.

Asked where else that might be the case he said “maybe Ohariu”.

What John Key has said, is no surprise. National was always going to stand candidates in  those two seats, but it was never going to actively run a campaign against Ministers who serve in their Government.

One should no more expect this to happen, than you would expect Labour to have tried to kill off Jim Anderton in Wigram, when he was a Minister in a Labour-led Government.

Regardless of whether National actively targets the electorate vote, many National party voters will give the National candidate their electorate vote. Tends to be around 80% nationally. This will also be the case in Epsom and Ohariu, unless onr or both of the following hold true:

  1. There is a candidate with huge cross-party support, such as Peters used to have in Tauranga, Harry Dunhhoven had in New Plymouth, Peter Dunne has in Ohariu etc
  2. It is tactically sensible to vote for another candidate to help your party – as happened in Wellington Central in 1996 and Epsom in 2005

National voters are smart, and also quite independent. They will decide for themselves what to do, regardless of whether the party is explicitly asking for electiorate votes or not. Epsom in 2005 is one example – letters went out to voters signed by the President asking them to vote for the National candidate. The voters said “No, we want ACT to remain in Parliament” and voted for Rodney.

What will happen in 2011? Well the two seats are quite different. Take Ohariu first. Peter Dunne, Katrina Shanks and Charkles Chauvel all polled quite close to each other last election and any of them could win the seat. If the National vote splits between Dunne and Shanks. CHauvel may come through the middle. If a poll shows this as probable, then you might get tactical voting – where eitehr Dunne voters vote Shanks to keep Chauvel out, or Shanks voters vote Dunne to keep Chauvel out. Whomever registers in third place in a public poll in that seat will run a risk of having their vote be tactically siphoned off. What Chauvel will want is the race to be so close that Shanks and Dunne almost tie, and he comes through the middle.

In Epsom, it will be a different sort of tactical decision. The seat is massively National and there is really no chance of Labour winning the seat. So why might National voters vote Hide? Because it may help National to do so. But my long stated position is that Epsom voters will only decide what to do in the final weeks. Any polls prior to that will mean little.

Around two or three weeks out, Epsom voters will ask themselves two questions.

  1. Can National form a centre-right Government without ACT? If National is at 57% the answer is yes, if National is at 47% the answer could be unclear, and if National is at 45% the answer is probably no. Remember that a National-Maori Party combination is not a CR Government. If Epsom voters see National as likely to need the Maori Party to govern, this will provide an incentive to give National an alternative in the guise of ACT.
  2. If the answer to (1) is no or “unclear” then the second question is will electing Rodney in Epsom make a difference. If ACT look like they can get five MPs again the answer is yes. If they are polling at below 1% the answer is probably no. If they are polling in the 1% to 3% range it is more complicated – especially as ACT usually does better on election night than the polls show.

The one thing the two seats have in common is that the public polls could have a significant impact on the outcome. Polls well before the election less so, but polls in the last few weeks could be considerably influential – far more so that what the party hierarchy want

Of course you want to be very careful that a poll has asked the right question. Peter McCaffery at AOC has a useful blog post on this issue, reminding people of the 2005 TVNZ poll which showed Worth beating Hide. That poll, as Peter explains, was asking the wrong question.

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