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Lets Get Statistical!

datePosted on 12:32, July 22nd, 2016 by E.A.

I had half of this in the works when the latest results came out so it was a simple case of plugging them into what I was already working on. Apologies for the wonky layout on the stats, I tried, I really did.

Is anyone else slightly amazed at the astounding 10% in Nationals polling from 43% to 53% in one month via Roy Morgan?

Personally I am calling BS on this one right now.

I admit that I might be slightly bias in my opinion of National (see my previous posts where I have referred to them as criminal scumbags et al) but I don’t think even my bias would blind me to the fact that in our current clime of political ineptitude (housing crisis, diary failure, immigration concerns, housing crisis, possible trade wars, water concerns, housing crisis and the repellent and nauseating image of either Clinton or Trump in the Whitehouse) the mood of the nation would suddenly shift 250,000 people to the political right in the space of one month!

And the idea that 10% of the electorate just suddenly jumping to the right seems even more dubious when you look at these numbers:

NAT              53%             (+10%)

LAB              25%             (-2.5%)

GRN              11.5%            (-3.0%)

NZF              7.0%             (-2.0%)

MAR              0.5%              (1.5%)

UNF              0.0%             (Nc)

  ACT              1.0%              (+0.5%)

MAN              0.5%              (-0.5%)

CON              0.5%              (-0.5%)

What stands out is not just the stupendous surge in popularity with National but the large losses to the Greens, Labour and New Zealand First. I could imagine that some NZ First voters might jump ship (being relative neighbors on the political spectrum) but -3% from the Greens?

But Roy Morgan is just one of the three main thermometers (the other two being Colmar Brunton (TV1) and Reid Research (TV3)) taking the rectal temperature of our nation (sorry Fairfax and Digipol you don’t count).

So let’s compare the polling figures for all three from the last month before quarter of a million kiwis decided that National is the way to go (thanks to Curia Market Research for their handy blog which provides and updated blog on all three).

 

Colmar(TV1)         Roy                     Reid(TV3)

NAT       48% (-2%)            43% (-2.5)           47% (+0.3%)

LAB        29% (+1%)           28% (-1.5%)       31.3% (-1.0%)

GRN       12% (+2%)           14.5% (+2.5%)    11.1% (+0.9%)

NZF        9% (nc)                9.0% (+1%)          7.8% (+0.3%)

MAR        0.7% (-0.4%)        1.0% (+1%)          1% (-0.3%)

UNF        0.0% (nc)              0.0% (nc)              0.0 (nc)

ACT         0.3% (-0.4%)        0.5% (+0.5%)       0.4% (-0.4%)

MAN       0.0% (nc)              1% (+1%)               0.0% (nc)

CON        0.7% (+0.4%)        1.0 (+0.5%)           0.0% (-0.7%)

 

METHOD            Rnd Phone      Rnd Phone     Rnd Phone

SAMPLE              1509/1245     868/820        1000

UNDECIDED       15%           5.5%           Unknown

SUBSCRIBE         Yes           No             Yes

MARGIN              +/- 2.5%      n/a            +/- 1.9%

 

What one gets from last month’s polling is that while National was polling higher for the Colmar Brunton and Reid polls (%48 and 47% respectively) the Roy Morgan poll was down at 43% just 30 days ago the movement of National from previous months was down on two out of the three and the third (+0.3%) was well within the margin of error.

Further the average for National from all three polls was just 45%.

And Roy Morgan’s own data from previous months shows National in gentle decline from its previous high of 50% in April last year

This shows that National was either holding steady or declining under the ongoing pressure of current events and its own limp reactions.

David Farrer, who runs Curia, posts about this on KiwiBlog where he breaks the numbers down a bit more and concludes that while probably not a 10% jump the rise, is probably genuine.

Now I know better than to argue stats with anyone interested in stats, as being a stat freak myself (military stats rather than the more usual Kiwi field of sports stats), but they are only as good as their method of collection and the method of processing, and with all due respect to David (and his statistical probabilities of the data being correct), I am just not convinced that National has increased at all.

As David himself notes on Kiwiblog, it’s been a month of “relentless negativity” for the government after previous months of doom and gloom also. So where is the positive direction coming from? Where is the love for Key and his scaly minions hailing? It can’t be the media, the Reserve Bank or the general public.

And what statements or announcements from the Lizard King himself or any announced policy (Nationals weak willed attempt at dealing with the housing crisis?) could be driving this? Where is the momentum for 10% of those being polled to shift to National at the expense of all other parties?

Farrer again has his own take on this calling Roy Morgan a “yo-yo poll” which sounds like a polite way for statisticians to put each other’s work down.

But before we dive into that lets have a bit more of a look at political polling in Godzone.

Firstly two of the big three polls have to confirm to the New Zealand Political Polling Code by being members of the Research Association of New Zealand (RANZ). Guess which poll is not a member? Hint it’s not Colmar or Reid. This is probably because Roy Morgan is based in Australia.

The code is reasonably robust with prescriptions for conducting, reporting and publishing the data covering the sampling, the collection method, the weighting, the margin of error and results. It does have a few grey areas like excluding unlikely voters from the sample but in general is sound and if followed should lead to consistent and accurate results and transparent reporting.

Second have a look at the sample size, Morgans is by far the smallest at 820. Now I know that for polling you don’t need to poll all people to get a representative sample (usually above 1000 is considered acceptable) but I do know that polling at such small levels can magnify small shifts in the data (my own undergrad study in Pol Sci was relentlessly American in technique, which as anyone taught under that system knows is very heavy on data collection and analysis over theory or analysis).

Then there is the margin of error (MOE) and the undecided portion of the polling. Roy Morgan does not have a margin of error that I could find but did have a 5.5% rate of undecided voters. This is not as high as Colmar’s 15% for +/-2.5% margin from a sample of over 1500 people but in a poll of just over 860 people a nearly 50 person hole in the data is problematic to say the least. Also Reids data does not even include the number of people undecided so we only know that it was less than 1000 listed.

Now I’m not linking these two inextricably but in such polls the MOE and percentage of those undecided are key measures for how reliable your data is and not being bound by the Polling Code or having a MOE leaves me concerned at this result, yo-yo poll or not.

Of course Colmar’s 15% hole in the data and Reid’s undeclared undecided are also problems but at least there is a margin of error to give some guarantee and I will be surprised if their new data shows such shifts.

With all three polls there are deeper issues with the data, one of which is the method of polling (calls to households with landlines).  Current data from Stats NZ has landlines in NZ at 85% which means that any house without a landline is automatically excluded.

The standard “wisdom” for this is that any household without a landline would be extremely low income and not likely to vote anyway. The issue is that I myself have a cell phone and an internet connection in my house but not a landline and many people I know don’t have one either being that mobile and internet can cover all the bases in modern life better than a landline can AND we are all politically active (ie we vote!). But that does not appear to register for the pollsters.

So the assumption that no landline equals no political participation is dubious at best and flawed at worst. I do acknowledge that the high rate of non participation in politics in NZ, which is reflected in only 76% of eligible voters voting in the last election, may have some correlation with economic well being and possibly not having a landline but as far as I know there is nothing to show exactly what those numbers are. Buts that’s an issue for another day.

So back to the question, where is National supposedly getting this 10% surge in votes from? Probably, as Farrer noted, there is likely some statistical error or readjustment (ie they were too low so the previous results were out of whack so this month’s result is more a readjustment than a surge in votes. That theory I can accept but I remain dubious of any increase in popularity for National at all given the current pressure they are under.

But apart from my grumbles about Key and Co there is a lot of other interesting data that can be taken from all three polls.

The first is that United Future is 0.0% across the board and with no change from previous polls. Add to this that Dunne currently holds less than a 2% majority in his one and only electorate and it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on in both Peter Dunne’s and the other parties minds as they consider the coming election and any electorates which might be up for Grabs.

Another is that the Maori Party, United Future and ACT are all one seat parties and all living well within the margin of error. Loose that seat and its goodbye baby. In the case of Act and the Maori Party both hold comfortable majorities (12% and over 20% respectively) but as noted above United Future is the straggling calf in the herd of political Wildebeest and the predators are circling.

Another interesting statistic is that if you add Mana and The Conservatives to the above three then five out of the nine parties in the poll are functioning non entities politically (ie no real representation in NZ). All live within the margin of error and all are political equivalent of the living dead if not actually dead (Mana and the Conservatives). The fact that all these zombie political parties, barring Mana, are or would assemble under the banner of National cements John Keys status as the Necromancer king of New Zealand politics.

But the most telling statistics of them all is that no matter how much National is up or down in the polls no combination of Labour and the Greens has enough to beat National at this time. They come close, ironically, in the Roy Morgan poll of last month, but nowhere can they actually get enough in the numbers to beat any poll result national has.

And if you’re thinking like I am thinking then you already know what those results are really saying, which has been said before by myself and many others, which is that the balance of power in all of this remains the MP for Northland, Winston Peters!

But with the current Roy Morgan results not even Winston can help the Greens and Labour but as I have been saying I do not believe the results to be that high and such polling always gets closer come election time as minds are made up and campaigning has an effect.

And why did Labour go down in the polls after announcing its own policy on housing which is streets ahead of Nationals own tepid response? There had been cautious indicators that the Labour/Greens MOU had helped build both brands and raise both in the polls but the current stats would have us believe that both have suffered for it and for actually proposing a solution to the housing circus.

So what has happened here? Did National pay someone at Roy Morgan to fudge the results? I would not put it past them but let’s assume no for the moment.

But the message, if echoed by the other two polls results (soon to be out), could have a chilling effect on any momentum the two parties have been building up the last months as they keep the pressure on the government through an ongoing barrage of criticism AND alternate solutions.

Political polling is the barometer of modern politics with its desperate reliance on unstable voter bases and shiftless ideologies. But as I use the barometer in my kitchen to give me an idea of the what the next 24 hours weather will be I also take those results with a grain of salt as the local and immediate reality can and does differ.

Most of the time we take political polls as gospel and never question their results, they are the life giving air that inflates or deflates party fortunes in western democracies far more than anywhere else in the world but they are, at the end of the day, just statistics and while a useful tool and just measure of past performance are not, in the quantum storm that is politics, always a good indicator of things to come.

I remain dubious of the 10% jump in preference as well as National having any uptake in the current round of political polling but I will have to respect the data if they all come in with the same conclusion. The question I would then ask is why? This is something that the stats and statistical data can never really answer.

Media Link: The US election circus.

datePosted on 11:09, July 16th, 2016 by Pablo

I have just returned to NZ after a month traveling in the US. While there I spent a fair bit of time talking with political friends and former colleagues, and it has been refreshing to see that there are plenty of people who see the situation for what it is rather than succumb to the uncritical and conservative media-induced notion that Donald Trump represents a genuine alternative to the political status quo and a real hope for positive change.

Now that he has chosen a troglodyte conservative white male governor from one of the most reactionary states as his Vice Presidential running mate, the die has been cast for one of the most remarkable acts of party self-destruction in modern times. That will become apparent over the next few days as the Republican convention unfolds in Cleveland. Expect riots both inside and outside the convention arena, and with less than a handful of significant senior national level Republicans and at least four (other) Trumps on the speakers list, this could be one of the best inbred political dog and pony shows ever seen. Let the fireworks begin!

I shall write more on the US elections between now and November (when the general election is held). For the moment here is a NZ radio interview I did while in the US that covers some recent developments.

Scratching the Nine Year Itch

datePosted on 15:21, July 12th, 2016 by E.A.

Updated by me after I had a nap and realized that I had missed some pertinent details, I’m on school holiday leave and chasing kids has left me zonked.

Well the announcement has been made and the policy revealed and while I have not had time to dig all the way into things it seems on first look to be a clear and measured response to the housing “situation”.

What is on table are a combination of 10,000 new houses a year until things are “better” (under a revamped Kiwibuild program) and a policy to limit housing speculators (a penalty for anyone selling a house in the first five years after purchase which is not their only or first home).

The extra homes seems an obvious fix and the anti speculation policy seems to be on the mark as well, given the almost immediate howls of outrage from sections of the market. Whether they will work or not remain to be seen but that’s the fate of any policy so such a worry is a moot point at this time.

There are some extra details hidden in the main read which appear to be that the 10,000 new houses will be paid for in the long run by their eventual sale to their tenants which appears to be a neat way to dovetail state housing into actual home ownership. If this is the case then this seems to be a rather pragmatic, dare I say win/win, mix of state and market.

I would love to know who in Labour actually come up with these ideas as they seem to be less political bombast and more actual soundly thought out policy, probably not any of the actual MPs. If this is the work of some Labour policy wonk then well done to them.

In short its a mix of state housing (something I predicted) and market controls (something I did not).

But in my last post I noted that for this to work we would have to have a comprehensive policy AND it would have to have some uptake with the voting public.

So while we have the first the second has yet to show itself but the next round of public polling should provide some clarification there.

And if it does show up in the numbers (even if small) then its a solid first step on the road to electoral victory for Labour in 2017.

Yes it is a big prediction but as an “astute political analyst” we get the kudos and the big bucks for seeing things before they become clear and despite the obviousness of Labours low political polling I think things are heading towards the usual situation we get with every third term government in recent memory.

And I dont think I am alone in this as a recent article in the media about National needing to think about a post Key enviroment echoing my own comments from a few months ago seems to indicate that while Key retains his personal popularity the fortunes of the party are now starting to take a beating under a constant barrage of grumbling in both the public and media regarding it’s inability to have a coherent response to anything except vomit forth political and statistical double speak.

This means that when Key leaves (and takes his high polling with him) National had better have a Plan B beyond allowing the various mutants and misanthropes in Nationals cabinet to descend in a power struggle similar to what has marred Labour in the last two terms (although I must admit I relish watching that ugly scenario play itself out and National return to its dead duck status of the early 2000s; with a forest of knives sticking out of various Cabinet members backs).

A good example of this is the recent Housing NZ furor with Steven Joyce’s $92 Million tweet sounding less like a pre-planned policy or decision and more a bunch of school kids trying to hide the body before teacher finds it. Did he jump the gun, did he misspeak, who knows but I can only assume some angry phone calls among the minions as things were sorted out.

I would add here that if it is victory for Labour it wont be alone as even with a rising tide of public opinion Little and Co are unlikely to get across the line without the help of their “good buddies” the Greens and Winston so while a good policy is a start Andrew Little had better still be watching what their mood on this is.

So for me, and I remind readers that I am not a fan of Labour anymore than I am of National, this announcement is the start of something. The usual nine year itch is starting to manifest itself in a persistent rash of grumbling about “the government” and its dealing with whatever is the “problems” of the moment (I dont know what it was under Helen Clark in 2007 as I was living in Asia at the time) and we are still a year out (at least if the recent slip by the President of the National Party can be believed about National calling an early election).

So where to from here? For me I will await the next round of polling to see if this new policy has actually sparked any interest in the public. And even if its only a low jump in the polls it will be enough of an indicator for me as the political environment in NZ is starting to flux and Nationals policy of keeping its head down is looking more like a head in the sand attitude than anything else.

If no change in polling the its back to the drawing board and expect another tilt at the windmill some time soon.

But for those with a yen to know the future now is a good time to think about what schemes and plans National will be cranking out in its Dirty Politics division to shut down Labour and its message (also deflecting on the lack of anything National is doing), as I don’t think National will be able to roll out any positive policy between now and whenever we go to polls, as it had numerous chances, in the last six months to shine and has botched them all to one degree or another.

So expect those evil little minions in the PMs office and adjoining spaces to start digging for dirt and loading the muck throwers. Already there has been a rather bitter remark from Steven Joyce that all that Labour has announced they (National) have already been doing but I see little to support that.

But muck or not this is a rather good start from Little and Co and if followed by more could be a good base for going into 2017. Seems like I was not the only one to think Labour needed to take a page from Norm Kirk’s good times school of vote mongering if it wanted to get back in the game and address the current problem/situation/crisis (you choose) regarding housing in NZ.

But crisis or not the market in Auckland (and the rest of NZ) needs cooling and more houses ASAP and Nationals infrastructure policy was so politically lightweight as to not even be trying. Labours new policy, if actually enacted, appears to be a more direct and immediate reaction but requires Labour to be in government to enact it.

In one way its a rather shrewd policy as it addresses the immediate situation but has a rather subtle “Labour has to be in government for this to happen” aspect to it which is as good as it gets for sneaky electioneering.

So consider this a rather prolonged scratch at that particular itch of nine years of the same government going to seed, becoming increasingly detached from the electorate and now officially asleep at the wheel.

Word around the campfire (several campfires in fact) is that Peter Dunne is a good minister.

I open with this little bit of information to be fair in the information I present (yeah right!) and to balance out my following assessment of him.

You see, unlike my other research into political parties and the individuals that compose them (a process which usually consists of me trolling the internet, checking my library, badgering my sources and “polling” those around me for a general opinion of the situation) I did not turn up the usual treasure trove of data, Wellington gossip, internet foot prints or scathing rants attached to the Peter or the United Future Party.

Oh to be sure there were some juicy slabs of salacious gossip abounding but none which could be verified beyond even the merest rumor and as such I decided to leave such things out and focus on what I actually could confirm by more than one source.

Which lead to a surprising amount of people, from many places in government, having nothing but praise for the man in his role as both current (DIA) and previous (IRD) ministerial positions (and various sub and acting ministerial roles).

It seems that Peter Dunne is the kind of minister that Chief Executives and Permanent Secretaries like (except for those truly aspiring to be Sir Humphrey Appleby) as he is intelligent enough to know the material, studious enough to know it in detail, pragmatic enough to take advice given and principled enough still make decisions in line with the party ideals and general values.

Dunne is not one of those ministers that require vast amounts of baby-sitting (Sam Lotu-Liga in the wake of the Serco debacle and his rapid removal from the corrections portfolio to something much much safer (and far less important); the Local Government portfolio); is a power hungry profiteer (Steven Joyce); dangerously ignorant (Murray McCully and Jerry Brownlee) or one of those empty political vessels which then become an avatar of greed, avarice and naked ambition (Judith Collins and most of the remaining vermin in cabinet).

All of which soon overwhelmed my own preconceived notions of him as a bow tie wearing political hack who simply went whatever which way the winds were blowing and who was now a dangerous relic helping to prop up an increasingly unpopular government.

It was my good friend Q who pointed out one night over drinks that while Dunne was all of those things that I believed he was (and Q should know having spent a good deal of time actually walking the halls of parliament playing nurse maid to its many skeezy denizens in both Labour and National governments) he also had many of the better points I have listed above and while still a political creature he could be considered “one of the better examples of the breed”.

On first hearing this I nearly choked on my drink as Q, while the perfect example of the legal/rational devil’s advocate type that can be found in Wellington if you look hard enough, was not known for laying out such glowing endorsements for MPs without an equal measure of dirty laundry culled from his time as first hand witness to their grubby behaviors.

But there was no skid marked Y-fronts to be found this time and I had to accept the fact if I was looking for examples of the usual slimy tendencies that politicians display I would be better suited to look elsewhere.

And so it went, time and again, over drinks, dinner and in the tea-break small talk between meetings which make up the bulk of the time any actual work in Wellington is achieved (for further details I direct the reader to Parkinson’s Law). Same story, again and again; competent minister, rational individual, good to work for and such and so forth.

Which meant that by the time I came to write this I felt compelled to open in the manner I just have which for me is a hard thing to do. I rate politicians just above pedophiles and just below lawyers.

But the subconscious nag which kept running in the back of my mind that accepting Minister Dunne as some sort of silver slipper bobbing among the turds in the parliamentary toilet bowl was wrong just would not go away.

So it was time to put some Jazz on the turntable, pop open a few beers, lie back on the couch in my usual meditative (or just plain lazy) position (fingers in the traditional Monty Burns “excellent!” manner) and think things through.

So after a few Montheiths and several sides of Donald Byrd I felt I had a handle on things and it went a little something like this.

Peter Dunne has been in politics, and parliament, for over 30 years. First as a member of the Labour Party (he entered in 1984) and later as an Independent MP and then as part of various assemblages of parties which eventually ended up under the banner of United Future.

And Dunne, like his significant doppelganger Winston Peters, has been in coalition with both Labour and National, supporting both governments and holding ministerial positions in both. Both have developed into one man band operations, despite the veneer of party structure each has assembled around them.

Both men have seen various bills through parliament and both have had their moments of controversy (although Winston could claim a lot more) and both have fallen afoul of the particular government of the day (Peters with both National and Labour and Dunne with National in 2013 over his leaking of documents to journo Andrea Vance).

But NZ First, as a party, appears a lot more coherent, if more sycophantic (I am always impressed when Winston storms or is thrown out of the house and his drones obediently follow) while United Future is a shell party assembled to give the illusion (for those who remember the de-registration saga in 2013) of coherent support outside of Dunne’s immediate staff so he can continue to receive government funding and allow Dunne to remain in parliament.

Where the symbiosis ends is that while Peters has championed the cause of the proverbial, and possibly theoretical, Kiwi, Dunne has not. Peters has retained a constituency outside of any particular electorate despite his win in Northland and his loss of his previous long held seat in Tauranga while Dunne has only ever held one seat (now by the slimmest of margins), Ohariu in Wellington.

From the Numbers side United Future has sunk in public polling from 6% in 2002 to 0.27% in 2014 while Dunnes margin in his home electorate has shrunk to a few percentage points ahead of Labour (36% to 34% in the 2014 election) and with National and the Greens holding healthy shares as well (National at 16% and the Greens at 7%).

NZ First on the other hand stole 54% of the votes in an electorate in had not really polled in before (Northland) and NZ first holds at around 7% to 10% on any given day in the party popularity stakes.

This means that as a political party United Future is a non-existent entity with no mandate of any kind and with a single MP who holds his electorate by the barest of margins due to a fractured makeup (the previously grumbles by Charles Chauvel of Labour in 2011 that Dunne had won the seat due to a deal with National to feed voters to United Future was probably sour grapes on Chauvels part but to me it would be less a case of National doing a deal with Dunne and more National simply encouraging its voters to “vote strategically” by supporting Dunne without any conspiracy needed to keep Dunne in power knowing that they could not win it themselves and to keep Labour out).

And the party website reflects all of this with sparse (if any) policy prescriptions, a list of members which appear to be entirely composed of all the individuals who care about the party (when you read their bios) and tag line “Economically responsible, socially conservative” all of which screams “dead man walking” in our current political climate. Granted it’s not as bad as ACTs website but that is a matter of degree not difference.

And Dunne is a dead man walking, he is a statistical anomaly who exists because he has carefully created a niche in the MMP ecosystem where he can remain and exploit his position in governments which require minor party support to make a majority.

He has played key roles in getting many pieces of legislation through the house and none worse than his deciding vote in making government asset sales a reality (which for me was the turning point where I went from seeing Dunne as a true inhabitant of the middle ground to a servant of the power).

His competence as a minister is commendable but not a saving grace in such a situation. And while I do believe that he is a genuinely principled individual (as his willingness to criticize the government of the day can sometimes show) his position in the system (and the actions he takes) comes at a far greater costs to the country than any service he has given to his electorate or imaginary party supporters.

Where Winston Peters is an out and out political showman demagogue grandstanding on issues to cynically get votes and keep punching his meal ticket Dunne has quietly enabled the slow motion train wreck (although he is not alone in this) that New Zealand politics has become by being one of the “silent majority” that has helped keep the neo-liberal reforms in place and the machine oiled and running.

It’s all there on the United Future Website where it tells the visitor that they are part of a “global movement” under which the flag of neo liberalism is proudly flown and in his own history when his move out of Labour in the 1980s came after Rodger Douglas and the other right wingers had already exited and Dunne was left alone in a party with blood on its hands and trying to rid itself of the remaining guilty candidates (of which Dunne was one).

But let’s compare further with his significant other. Winston’s great(est) moment in the political spot light was the Wine box inquiry which saw him expose the seedy underbelly of New Zealand for all to see through his uncanny ability to grab an issue and extract maximum fury from it while Dunne’s was his refusal to handover all his emails to a government inquiry which saw him vilified for a short while by National (and many in public) and then let back into the beehive clubhouse. Winston remains a potent threat to any government in that he will scramble their entire agenda if it warrants or he does not get what he wants.

Dunne can occasionally express mild upset or disapproval at various tweaks of government policy (as his rather entertaining twitter feed shows) but his protestations usually amount silent farts of apathy and reek of a schizophrenia of morals rather than any real outrage or protest.

And it is there that the difference shows, as a true centrist Peters remains a threat to either side and retains his King maker mystique while Dunne is an accomplice to whatever government will pay his price but without any real threat value. I admit that it’s a small difference but in MMP politics it’s a crucial one; that of unpredictability and exposure vrs predictability and acquiescence.

Some had said that Peter Dunne died in the 90s along with Jim Anderton and the Alliance (yes I know he was an MP till 2011 but he was another example of a MP leeching off his electorate) and was resurrected in 2002 by the “Worm” used to monitor the statements made by MPs during the televised debates (and lets not start on the Worm right now, a more blatant example of election engineering I cannot think of).

If that is the case and Dunne owes his current existence to a cheap TV gimmick then he has done well from this quirk of fate but in the final analysis he, like Peters, Anderton and ACT, is a child of MMP and the system allows for such creatures but unlike Winston, Dunne is on borrowed time as the only thing holding him in place is the fact that any push by Labour to unseat him might drive voters in his electorate in the arms of National as much as themselves. But a desperate Labour might just be tempted to risk it to get one more “easy” seat come a tight 2017 race.

But I leave the final words to my good friend Q who in his measured tones noted that despite all of the vitriol I could muster Peter Dunne may actually be the “most successful politician in NZ politics today” having served both as a MP continuously for over 30 years (Winston has 40 but it has gaps out of office and his limited time helming actual portfolios weakens his legacy) and for long stretches as a minister in many governments which is not a feat that many politicians can boast of.

Of course that was a pure measurement on the scale of politics devoid of morality of anything else (Q is a trained lawyer after all) but grudgingly I would have to agree with him.

Not Quite But Getting There

datePosted on 15:11, May 23rd, 2016 by E.A.

It seems that Labour might have finally gotten the memo about getting it’s A into G but perhaps not quite digested the content. Still it’s a start. The last month has seen a steady stream of both Labour and Little in the media, highlighting issues in the electorate and proposing solutions (Panama papers, housing, hotel deals, house prices, fishing quotas etc)

National continues to say that is nothing but “slogans” which is rich coming from them but let’s put the bitterness aside for the moment and have a bit more of a look at the situation.

On my first post about Labour I referred to them needing to come up with something new and that trying the same old policy routine was not going to win them the election from an entrenched National. A few weeks ago I noted that Andrew Little needed to be on the attack if he and the party was actually going make traction in the media and with the electorate.

The rationale behind these two points is simple and my “scouring” of both the mainstream media in NZ and the blogsphere has turned up similar sentiments, the key points of which are that Labour needs to get back to its real roots to atone for the heinous betrayal of 1984 and that a dug in National wont be giving up points easy so Labour needs to take the initiative and hone its policy and pre-election stance through trial by fire rather than more party retreats.

In effect its fat camp, a makeover and a whole new wardrobe for Labour and the effects may have already started to show but I have heard and read several people slag the whole thing off as pointless and a waste of time.

There is some truth to the assertion that it’s too early yet to really see a change in Labour, so far its policy platforms/ideas are still just not hitting the nerve with the electorate but the party seems to be putting out more press releases about the state of affairs in NZ and linking the government to it and that’s a start.

The idea is less about scoring points against National, although a few would be nice, but rather get the party name back in the media and start positioning itself again as the true party of the opposition.

But here is where I would be earning my money if I was a party spin doctor. So far the prescriptions are standard and predictable (ie get the name out more, provide alternatives etc) but the real reason for getting out and about in the media is that it starves National of air and either forces it to burrow deeper into its bunker or come out and fight on core issues or risk having Labour take over the narrative.

And it’s here where a well-planned and prepared policy and media ambushes would work wonders. The current state of New Zealand is full of low hanging fruit just begging for a solution to the problem of the day. National has had eight years in power and it’s clear that nothing is getting better. It’s also clear that Labour has started to think like that and started to gear its message along those lines. But it’s not enough.

The race to November 2017 is not a short sprint and National has banked on the long haul, saving its shots for a John Key led media blitz in the actual campaigning phase. This makes sound sense if Labour wallows in apathy and can’t get out of its own funk as National just has to play it safe and compare itself to Labour to win the prize.

This won’t work if Little and Labour go and stay on the offensive from here until December 2017 but to make this work requires more than just a slew of media releases and trotting out the same old arguments (and MPs) as before.

The key factor in this is Labour shedding all its 1984 to 2016 baggage and emerging anew from the cocoon of policy it has woven itself into and to do this means that the party has to re-cross the Rubicon of sorts and return to ideological roots, albeit with a 21st century spin.

And to return to my original point it looks like Labour has started a charm offensive by running a range of media attacks on National but without the bigger ideological transformation National can continue to say that it’s just slogans because that’s all it will be.

Little does look to be getting some stones with his standing by his comments about hotel deals in Niue (although if you read through his statements you can see the lawyer in him inserting the escape clause at the end) and various senior MPs appearing in the media attacking this and that of govt policy.

It’s an encouraging start but it’s just a start and this race to November next year will require something special to keep the momentum going and to begin wresting back those wayward Labour voters and that is the monumental policy/ideology shift required to sustain the party for the long haul. In short a swift step away from the center and back to the Left.

It’s easy to see why the party has balked at this suggestion in the past but the 1984 to 2016 period has been poison to the party and ammunition for National every time Labour opens its mouth to point out how bad things are under the current government.

The vital point in this whole plan is to differentiate itself from National in every way shape and form, no more squabbling over the scraps of the middle voter demographic, which is now beginning to wither and die anyway under National Policy, but instead a return to easily identifiable core values which come pre-packed with a message and a meaning that is in opposition to everything National stands for.

And the messages have, for most part, avoided Key and gone for Nationals weakness, its bloody awful polices and record across the board with its stewardship of NZ which is key (no pun intended) to defeating National.

This is clever as if they dont fight Key head on, but make National wheel out its golden boy to defend on all and any issues it will take the shine off his royal behind between now and polling day and prep the ground for the whole new message that Labour should be unveiling in the next few months as there have been indications here and there and Labours new general secretary, Andrew Kirton, dropped some tantalising words in the Listener a while back which sounded like there were bigger plans afoot.

This strategy has some other benefits as its will not only starve National of air but it will also do the same to both the Greens and NZ First. If there is any chance of Labour/Winston coalition Labour will have to be the biggest dog in the yard come polling day, not after, and that only comes from being the big dog, picking fights and scrapping it out in public, the the media and not just the benches with all and any challengers.

It’s a risk, I admit, but the issues that bedevil Labour will remain, if not get worse, if they lose this election and by the time the 2020 election comes round could be way too late to salvage the party. It’s the same dilemma National face once John Key decouples from the party

So if Labour has its eyes set on getting the gold in November next year it’s going to have to take things to the next level. My concern is that just as it’s getting its mojo back the party will hold there and try and run a half-baked policy platform through the election and get beaten with predictable results.

 

Bernie the spoiler.

datePosted on 13:39, May 19th, 2016 by Pablo

Things are getting interesting on the Democratic side of the US presidential primaries. Although Hillary Clinton is on pace to win the nomination, Bernie Sanders continues to dog her steps with wins that keep him, if not within striking distance of securing the nomination himself, close enough in delegate count and popular support to narrow the gap between them to the point that she cannot claim a decisive mandate as the nominee. That is important because if the trend continues, and especially if he can stay close or win in California in early June, he can arrive at the convention armed with demands that will have to be met if he is to throw his support behind her in the general election. There is already talk of him running as an independent (which is what he was until he entered the Democratic primary). That would prove disastrous for the Clinton campaign and could turn the presidential race into a mirror image of two divided major parties having candidates from within their ranks running as spoilers against their convention nominees.

Let us be very clear on one thing: Bernie is right when he says that the Democratic nomination process is stacked against him. Between interest group super delegates whose loyalty is pledged to Clinton regardless of primary results to the closed primary process itself, there has been concerted effort by Democratic party bosses to keep his numbers down by denying independents the right to vote and counter-balancing the popular vote with super delegate selections. He has, quite frankly, been cheated on more than one occasion and that does not even take into account the more underhanded tactics used against him by the Democratic National Committee.

This spilled over recently in the Nevada Democratic convention, where a pro-Clinton state party chairperson overruled Sanders supporter’s motions and sat Clinton delegates rather than those pledged to Bernie. The convention descended into chaos and the chairperson, a woman, was inundated with vicious misogynistic physical threats mainly from the so-called “Bernie Bros,” presumably angry young men. Although Sanders issued a one line sentence condemning violence in a three paragraph statement about that convention, the bulk of it was dedicated to highlighting the underhanded moves made by the chairperson and her minions. He followed that with a victory speech after the Oregon primary (which he won handily) in which he remained defiant, belligerent and determined to take his campaign to the convention. He does not appear to be in the mood for reconciliation with Ms. Clinton.

Needless to say, Democratic Party leaders, Clinton supporters and many liberals are freaking out over this. They see Sanders as a sore loser given that he knew what he was getting into when he joined the party last year in order to run for the nomination. They see his candidacy as interfering with the streamlined selection process that was supposed to result in a unified consensus backing Clinton. More importantly, they see his intransigence and talk of a third party run as handing the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump, especially given that some Republican Party luminaries are lining up behind the Orange Crush as a matter of partisan duty regardless of what the consequences may be should he become president. In fact, however reluctantly, the Clinton haters within the GOP and their media surrogates appear to be coalescing behind Trump at the same time that the fractures within the Democratic Party are getting more pronounced. No wonder Democrats are freaking.

I am less concerned than my liberal US friends about this because I think that Sanders is playing his cards correctly. The reason is because I think that what he is playing is a variant of the “moderate-militant” strategy. A moderate-militant strategy is one where a militant objective is announced as a first negotiating point and pursued until an opposing actor makes moderate concessions to the militant. Rather than the militant goals, the real intent is to secure moderate gains. The militant starting point is just a negotiating ploy designed to force the opposing side to move towards it in the hope of securing an agreement.

In the Sanders version, the strategy is to run his campaign on “socialist” principles all the way to the convention. By playing hardball and not wavering before it, he forces the Clinton camp to accept the fact that without him they cannot win and with his supporters opposed they will certainly lose the general election. If Sanders arrives at the convention armed with a strong contingent of delegates in spite of all the manoeuvres against him, he can threaten to tell his supporters to either not vote or cast their ballots against her in the general election. In that case it is very likely that Clinton will concede on important issues and incorporate them into her policy platform before she is declared the nominee. This decision will be made easier by the GOP partisan consolidation around Trump, which brings closer to reality the heretofore unimaginable prospect of his presidency. Given her own negatives, she can no longer rely on loathing of Trump as a guarantee of a defensive vote turnout against him. She needs Bernie more than he needs her, and his playing tough all the way to the convention is a way of underscoring that point.

The worst thing that Sanders can do is concede or pull out of the race before the convention. Were he to do so he would lose any bargaining position he might have had at the convention because for the militant-moderate strategy to work it must be held steadfast until the other side makes a conciliatory move. Given their differences, including opposing views on whether to embrace corporate reform and accept special interest political financing among many other things (such as the US position on Israel-Palestine), it would be a waste of all the time, resources and effort he and his supporters have put into his campaign to abandon it before they have a chance to make their case at the common gathering. Instead, the best bet for his voice being heard strongly at the convention is to press on all the way to it, and then some.

Under no circumstances should Sanders accept Clinton’s assurances on key policy issues in return for his quitting the race and throwing his support to her. I would not trust the DNC and Clinton camp as far as I could throw them. Instead, he must make a condition of his support that the party write in the concessions to his policy demands into the presidential campaign platform adopted at the convention. It may not make for an airtight guarantee once she is elected but it will be much better than relying on her good faith that what was promised will be delivered come January 2017.

If the Clinton camp is smart they will realise that Sanders has brought something new into the party, which given the polarisation of the country and who they are running against, can be a key to their success in November. They must understand how he is playing the game and why he is doing so. They must understand that offering him a position in a Clinton administration is not what he is after and would not suffice to mollify his supporters in any event. They must study their positions in advance and see where they can concede readily and where negotiations on substantive issues will be harder. But what they must understand most is that the chances of a Clinton victory in November rest as much on gaining his support as they do on her own qualifications and experience.

If that is understood, the remaining primaries can be contested vigorously (if not honestly) with a mind towards clearly demonstrating the policy-based platforms of the Democratic candidates versus the empty rhetoric, simple-minded prescriptions and opportunistic bombast coming from the other side. Once that is done, the convention can become not only an arena of contestation between contending ideas about how to take the country forward, but also an opportunity to exchange concessions in order to present a unified front to the voting public. Therein lies the recipe for success in November.

Cloudy With a Chance of Winston

datePosted on 15:42, May 7th, 2016 by E.A.

I normally stay well away from media on the weekend because anything that cant wait until Monday I will find out about anyway but this weekend with my chores done and some time free I got online and surfed teh inetrwebs.

It was on Stuff.co.nz that I came across Tracy Watkins review of the week in Politics (Political week: Labour looking for a game changer). In many ways it was similar to my own (and many others) analyses of the situation in NZ politics at this time but, like many political journalists in NZ, lacking that more in depth bite that can often be found over on less mainstream places where NZ politics is discussed (hint hint).

Its not that I disagreed with most of what she says but I will use her article here as an example of why mainstream media coverage just doesn’t do it and is in fact as much of a problem as an often apathetic public is. So first my apologies to Tracy for bagging her here but if our roles were reversed I would expect the same.

And I might add that I normally would not comment on the commentators. Not out of any professional courtesy as she is an actual paid journo who is widely read and I am just a some nutter with a keyboard and an internet connection but because when you get down to commentating on the commentators you have officially run out of things to say and should shut up shop and find a new trade or hobby.

And I get that her article came out under the label “opinion” but when what you are saying is likely to be forming the fodder for mainstream political discussion around the country its not really opinion but opinion forming/shaping.

Maybe she (and the rest of her profession) work under tight editorial restrictions and lets face it when you have to file on a regular basis for a living you probably have to pad some of what you do on occasion. But thats just the point, mainstream NZ political coverage is padding out its work almost all the time when there are plenty of angles that could be explored rather than the factual but rather bland reportage that she (and others) submit for print.

Its like watching the weather report, a statement of what has recently happened with a few predictions about the immediate future which will probably be right but which degrade over time the further out things get.

And when politics is reduced to something akin to weather reports you know things are wrong. Her article was, as I stated, not misrepresenting the truth or leading people astray but her analysis of Labours predicament was not exactly a revelation to even the the most apolitical kiwi and when she effectively stated that trusts will be come an issue when they become an issue I realized that there was going to be no wisdom dispensed. It was a very neutral assessment which like daily weather reports play it out in the manner of something which could be good or bad but which you have no actual say in, so just like it or lump it and make sure you bring your coat or umbrella.

But back to the article, I will have to disagree with her on the fact that trusts will not be an issue outside the beltway in NZ and I could be wrong but what really got me was her analysis of Labour and the Greens needing to have a more positive aspect and stop just trying to sling mud lest they be accused of crying wolf once to often.

If National keeps doing the dirty then its mud that shall kept be slung. Yes Labour need a new bag but right now with Key and National in bunker mode the attack is the only means to land a hit and Little needs to rally his troops round this and take them into the breach. Yes there will be casualties but the man needs to find his mojo and with the current issue of the Panama papers, trusts, tax havens, the ultra rich and Keys ex-lawyer there is no better thing on which he could sharpen it. As they say in Jazz you gotta fake it till you make it and the current situation is the biggest chink in the armor that Key has ever shown, he is directly linked and just because its not Phillip Field level scandal does not mean its not worth having a go at it.

And if he doesn’t then someone else will. Watkins believes that Little has only the choice of snuggle up to Winston or go up against him. On that I fundamentally disagree. Little will get no respect from the member for Northland if he goes with cap in hand but nor does that mean he should then just wail against him. There is a middle ground and if Winston makes up his mind on National then so be it, no manner of inducements would be worth the price if it was purely his votes that they needed and Winnie was asking for the “Big Payoff”, history has shown that.

If Little is to make points its with what the situation has handed him and when you get lemons you make lemonade, if you get mud you sling it, not gift wrap it and try to make friends.

Little and Labour have over a year to the next election so there is infinite time to get the ship in order but right now battle drills should be the order of the day when there are live targets to practice on.

Watkins analysis plays out the angle of a powerless electorate, weather deliberate or not, and gives the impression that we had all just hope that Winston makes the right choice come November 2017.

What seems to be missing is the idea that all three main opposition parties can get in on this one together, be it friendly or not. Maybe she has never seen the Royal Rumble (if so, poor woman) and so doesn’t know how quickly alliances can form and shift in the race towards the ultimate prize.

And I don’t make my pro wrestling analogy lightly as politics both here and elsewhere have become very close to Wrestling with its good guys and heels, scripted drama, shock plot twists and occasional  genuine upsets as like wrestling the plot can be determined by the sudden audience appeal of a heel or an underdog and their efforts to wow the crowd. Yes it is at its core a powerless spectacle with no real interaction but I would rather than than the grim narrative of “Cloudy with a chance of Winston”.

Back to the weekend.

Defensive voting and split tickets.

datePosted on 14:31, May 3rd, 2016 by Pablo

As part of the ongoing effort to clarify some aspects of the US elections this year, this post focuses on two tactics: defensive voting and ticket splitting. Some readers may already be familiar with both concepts, but for those who are not, here is brief outline of what they involve.

Defensive Voting.

Defensive voting is the act of voting against someone by casting a ballot for their opponent not out of loyalty or agreement with the position of the opponent, but out of fear of the possibility of the disliked candidate winning. This may be due to a number of reasons but is usually based on a lesser evil approach: In order to prevent a greater evil from occurring in the form of a detestable candidate being elected, voters choose whatever alternative candidate is available who stands a chance of preventing the “bad guy” from prevailing. The idea is simply to prevent an unpalatable candidate from electoral victory even if the alternative is not entirely palatable either. There may be variations on this approach, such as voting for a clearly marginal candidate in order to help sideline a legitimate opponent, but the basic premise for such tactical voting is prevention, blocking or denial, not support, affirmation or promotion.

This is another reason why the US presidential race is so interesting. Polls show that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most detested front-running candidates in US presidential history. Ted Cruz is equally loathed across the political spectrum. That means that more than the vote of their supporters, what will decide the outcome in November is who has the largest defensive voter turnout against them. A micro version of this scenario will play out at both major party conventions, since the “anyone but Trump” Republican factions and the Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party will, at least initially, vote against the front runners as much because of their dislike of them as out of support for their own candidates.

Depending on what happens at the conventions, in November it is entirely possible that some if not many Republican voters will vote for Clinton (should she win the nomination) or an independent candidate rather than Trump. Likewise, Sander’s supporters, if he does not win the nomination and receives no policy concessions in the Clinton platform, could well turn to a third party candidate such as that of the US Green Party. That could seriously tighten the race and perhaps even lead to a Trump victory, which from the standpoint of many progressives would simply help sharpen the contradictions in the US political system and lay the foundations for more significant change down the road (I refuse to use the term “revolutionary” because unlike Sanders and his supporters I have a full understanding of what social revolutions entail, and that does not include participating in deeply institutionalised electoral processes).

If the presidential race comes down to Clinton versus Trump or Cruz, then the deciding factor will be who has the most votes cast against them rather than for them. Given the intensity of negative feelings towards all of this motley crew, it could lead to a record turnout on both sides of the political divide and give previously non-committed Independent voters, particularly those who were not able to vote in closed primaries, a decisive role in the election.

Ticket splitting.

Those familiar with MMP understand this concept well. The  “split ticks” versus “two ticks” phenomenon is simple to grasp: you can either vote for a party and a candidate from that party in a general election (giving “two ticks” to the party vote and that party’s candidate from your electoral district), or you can split your party vote from your member vote (say, by voting for Labour in the party vote and a Green candidate in the member vote).

This type of voting is unusual in the US. Political parties tend to discourage so-called vote splitting because in most elections whole slates are presented as a ticket by the party to voters, for offices ranging from president to the local dog catcher. Even though voters, in practice, do split their votes among national, state and local offices, at the national level the US electoral system largely operates in binary, either/or fashion. That makes it a rare day when parties urge their supporters to split their national-level votes.

This year that day has come. Some in the GOP leadership are floating the idea that, should Trump win the party nomination, people should split their votes in the presidential race from their votes “down ticket,” that is, for other elective offices. The GOP has very real reason to be concerned that a Trump defeat could trickle down through the Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and even important mayoral races. With that in mind, they are asking their supporters to vote Republican down ticket even if they do not vote for Trump (and in fact many in the GOP are urging voters to vote for anyone but Trump). As mentioned in my previous post, a shift in six Senate seats restores a Democratic majority to it. In the House the shift will have to be much larger but even one that decreases the Republican majority close to or below the 2/3 mark needed for passage of legislation can be devastating for GOP prospects during the next congressional term. With several prominent Republican politicians tainted by their endorsement of Trump (such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie), the chances of his dragging the entire party down with him are considered to be very possible. Thus the open calls for vote splitting on the part of some in the Republican leadership.

On the Democratic side there is less interest in vote splitting although Sander’s supporters are urging him to run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination for president. Should he do so, then his supporters will engage in vote splitting as well, voting for him rather than Clinton but voting for Democratic candidates down ticket. That will be what tightens the presidential race, as barring unforeseen circumstances Sanders can only act as a spoiler in the campaign for the White House. This is the most likely reason why the Clinton camp will be inclined to offer him significant policy concessions at the convention, which not only will mollify his supporters but also could help increase their defensive vote against Trump.

The Outlook.

Of course, in no small part because she is a female in a country that still has issues when it comes to gender and higher office, Clinton may have more defensive votes cast against her than those cast against Trump or Cruz. In that case the stage will be set for the mother of all federal government meltdowns once either Republican candidate assumes office, since whoever it is will very possibly be fighting Congressional Republicans as well as the Democrats from his perch in the Oval Office, to say nothing of many state an local authorities. But given those who have been scapegoated by Trump and Cruz’s neo-medieval social outlook, framed against the demographics of the country, the more likely scenario is that defensive minded voters turn out in droves, many of them splitting their tickets on the conservative side,  and Clinton rides to victory, perhaps in a landslide.

In the meantime, let’s get back to our popcorn and beverages and watch the circus/trainwreaks primaries continue to unfold.

Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

I should have realized that once I turned my jaundiced eye on Labour and National and started spouting my biased opinions about them I would have to “analyze” the rest of the denizens of the NZ political ecosystem. So here we go.

 

It’s been nearly 40 years since Winston Peters first entered parliament as an MP (1978) and over 40 since he entered politics (joining National in 1975).

In that time he has run the gamut of politics many times and held almost every position in government imaginable (MP, party leader, cabinet member, Minister, opposition MP, leader of party with no seats) as well as been investigated (and cleared) by the Serious Fraud Office, censured by parliaments privileges committee and been the recipient of secret donations from wealthy businessmen.

The man was also the instigator of Winebox Inquiry, fought and squabbled with more than one Prime Minister, been exiled from various cabinets, left one political party, formed one of his own and rumored to be the patron saint of one small special branch of a larger government department.

Winston Peters is the James Brown of New Zealand politics: a skilled and dynamic entertainer who always gives good show but is a dictatorial bandleader who overworked and under paid his backing bands (The Tight Five is to Winston as the Famous Flames are to James) all to enhance his own reputation.

To be sure he (Winston not James) is highly entertaining and rarely fails to provide an entertaining quote or attention grabbing headline but the substance of his actions have rarely lived up to his hype (unlike James) and his effect on politics or NZ as a whole (super gold card aside) is divisive at best and possibly toxic at its worst.

But like him or loath him he has survived many of his friends and critics and seen off more than one challenger to his rule of NZ First. At its simplest Winston Peters is a political survivor.

He survived the 2008 blowout of NZ First which saw many write him off only to come back in 2011 (with a respectable 8% in the polls) and then pull off one of the most astounding upsets in New Zealand Politics by not only breaching the walls of National stronghold Northland but taking it convincingly (over 50%) in his first ever time campaigning there.

But what Winston is really known for and what has made him such an enduring figure on the New Zealand political landscape (one littered with wanna-be greats, has-beens and also-rans along with many forgettable politicians and PMs) is the fact that he has been instrumental in maintaining not one, but two minority governments (National in 1996 and Labour in 2005) in their hour of need and in doing so set them up for their later defeat by allowing them to succumb to third term arrogance.

Few who lived through 1996 can forget how heated the election campaign got, the visible anger on Bolgers face during his and Peters famous shouting matches. Winston all but pledged on his mother’s grave that he would never go with National and that it was time for a change and then went with National after nearly two months of protracted negotiations haggling in New Zealand’s first ever MMP election; thereby denying Helen Clark the chance to be the first ever female PM and dooming New Zealand to three more years of the National Governments neo-liberal frenzy of privatization, deregulation and Business Round Table gibberish.

Still the glove was on the other foot when in 2005 Winston was back and this time doing what said he would do nine years earlier, supporting Labour in a collation government. But things had changed as it was now Labour that was struggling to maintain its lead and National under Brash managed to get 39% of the vote and would have been government had Winnie gone with his old alma mater like previously. Instead he backed a grateful Helen, got a swag full of political spoil and set Labour up for the very same fall National got when he supported them in 96.

It’s an interesting counterfactual to consider how things would have been like had Winston gone the other way (Labour in 1996 and National in 2005). Would things have been any different? The persistent and apocryphal myth around Wellington is that in the wake of Nationals disintegration in 99 and the early 2000’s Helen Clark was thankful that Winston had gone with National at the time, only forget the warning of history when she turned to him for support in 05 (and suffered the same fate as Shipley and Co).

You would almost think he had done it just for some sort of kinky thrill and with an election in 2017 looming and NZ First currently holding at 9% in the polls Winston may again be in the position to decide who is in power and who is PM. But the hand of support he offers has proven to be short term political expediency followed by long term electoral toxicity.*

But unlike 1996, 2017 will not see National desperately trying to get a third term or deeply unpopular in the polls (not unless John Key is found out to be an extremely skilled chatbot between now and then) and with no clear pretenders to the throne (Labour in disunity at 28% and Greens at 10% would not be enough to do it alone against National at their current polling of 50%) the key figure under current polling projections is the one, and only, Winston Peters.

But there are some complications in the script which Key and National are sure to try and exploit and one of those likely to get exploited if they are not careful will be Winston Peters.

To start, Winston is genuinely opposed to the Greens and has previously mooted going into coalition govt with them. That means that NZ First would not back a Labour government if the Greens were also part of the package. This leaves Labour with the near impossible task of making up the missing support (getting around 40% of the vote) to enable it to form a government with the Greens if NZ First will not support them.

So if Labour cannot get enough support to jettison the Greens (something they would love to do anyway) and Winston will not come to the party and this leaves him with only two options: stay independent or support National (either in coalition or tacitly) because if Labour cannot form a government then John Key will rule for a fourth term by default.

The only alternative to this scenario is that Winston swallows his pride and decides to go into coalition with Labour and the Greens. This is not an impossible scenario but it’s less likely than him rejecting anything to do with the Greens.

It would be an uneasy alliance at best and possibly way too volatile, given Winston’s track record of grandstanding and political belligerence, to survive for long. The net result of such a coalition collapsing would be an electoral bloodbath as Labour would have blown its golden opportunity to get back into power while National would swoop like rabid wolves on a straggling sheep.

Finally making this all the more toxic is the question of where he is cobbling his votes from. Conventional wisdom would say from National or the undecided middle (Winston is long past having any credible electoral draw on the Left after his betrayal in 96) but I suspect that the rising theme of electoral insurrection in the world today may end up seeing anyone who promises to “smash the pointy headed bastards in the capital” getting increased vote share based purely on their angry rhetoric, push button messaging and opposition stance. Which is a situation tailor made for Winston Peters.

Winston extracted maximum gain for himself in both 96 and 05 but failed to see out a single governmental term in the governments he kept alive (probably because his support was only a superficial fix for deeper structural problems). In 98, after Jenny Shipley ran her noisy coup on Jim Bolger in public (in direct opposition to National Party tradition of keeping the bloodletting behind closed doors), Winston was kicked from cabinet due to endless squabbling with her and promptly took his toys (read support for government) and went home.

In 2005 he was rather quicker in the courtship but wanted a lot more bling to walk down the aisle only to turn out to be a lethal political liability as he was engulfed in various dodgy scandals that left his legacy in tatters (except for the devout worship in the afore mentioned section of government and the horse racing industry which reaped a financial windfall from his tenure as Minister for Racing which continues to this day) and saw NZ First go below the five percent threshold and Winston get driven out of his long term seat of Tauranga.

In the wake of all this many said that it was the end of Winston but he said it was not and vowed to return. And surprise surprise he was right, after a comeback in 2011 he expanded that in 2014 and then stole Northland from National in 2015.

And if the 2017 election rolls around and current polling continues then the man who may decide the outcome will be the same man who previously keep alive two struggling and unpopular governments in the face of calls for change.

Out of such a situation Winston may walk like a phoenix from the fire; the comeback kid and kingmaker again squarely in the middle and ready to decide the fate of NZ. What his price may be and what costs will be borne by the country are yet not known but the man is no fool and he will have gauged the coming mood well (as his electoral Blitzkrieg in Northland showed) and be playing to get maximum gain for himself.

It would be incorrect to label Winston a simple populist (or demagogue) but neither is he a democrat or man of the people. Any benefits accrued by the electorate from his presence in government are mostly secondary to keeping him in politics. He is a one man political brand and when he does decide to get out of the game NZ First will on death watch but NZ politics will be a lot less colorful.

 

* – I’m not really blaming Winston for the political degradation of both Labour and National in modern times but it makes an interesting hypothesis.

 

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