John Key and David Cunliffe both spent much of the election campaign talking about the dreaded “things that New Zealanders really care about”. But Key, under direct attack, was much more disciplined about sticking to those things. The metacampaign, Dirty Politics, and the Dotcom Bomb were worth nothing more than haughty dismissal. At the time this seemed arrogant and ill-advised — how could he just shrug off such scandal? But he did. The National party ran an orthodox, modern campaign. They stuck to their guns amid all the madness, and the result was triumphant.

The poster child for this campaign was candidate Chris Bishop, who ran an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign in the Labour stronghold of Hutt South and pushed the party’s strategic genius Trevor Mallard to within a few hundred votes of losing the seat he has held for 20 years. No stunts, no social media hype, no concern for the wittering about his being a former tobacco lobbyist, he just talked to the people and listened to the answers that came back.

But how did they know?
A few days before the election, Russell Brown was polled by Curia, and posted the questions. Russell noted that “these questions aren’t really geared towards firmly decided voters” — and this is key. They don’t presuppose a strong position, they’re simple and to the point, and they lead respondents through a narrative about what leadership is about and what government is for. And they seem as if they would yield an enormous amount of actionable data, not only about what voters value, but about why they value it. On election night, Key singled out Curia pollster David Farrar for particular praise:

“To the best pollster in New Zealand — and don’t charge us more for it — David Farrar, who got his numbers right! And who I rang night after night, even though I was told not to, just to check.”

John Key could afford to dismiss the metapolitics because he had plenty of good data telling him that people didn’t care about it, and to the extent that they did care about it, it favoured him. The single most evident difference between the campaigns is that When John Key said “the things New Zealanders really care about” he actually knew that these were the things that New Zealanders actually care about. The National party ran a reality-based campaign, not a hype-based, or a hope-based, or a faith-based campaign. In this they mirrored the most famous hope-based campaign of all time — Barack Obama’s — where the breezy, idealistic messaging was built on a rock-solid data foundation.

Key seems to have been the only party leader who was really secure in this knowledge. The Greens and Labour did seem to want to stick to their guns, but their data was evidently not as good, and they bought at least some of the hype that Dirty Politics and the Dotcom Bomb would bring Key low. So did I. But nothing much is riding on my out-of touch delusions. But opposition has a responsibility to be, if not reality-based, then at the very least reality-adjacent.

Play, or get off the field
I am a terrible bore on this topic. I have been criticising Labour, in particular, since at least 2007 on their unwillingness or inability to bring modern data-driven campaign and media strategy to bear in their campaigns — effectively, to embrace The Game and play it to win, rather than regarding it as a regrettable impediment to some pure and glorious ideological victory. Mostly the responses I get from the faithful fall under one or more of the following:

  • National has inherent advantages because the evil old MSM is biased
  • the polls are biased because landlines or something
  • the inherent nature of modern neoliberal society is biased
  • people have a cognitive bias towards the right’s messaging because Maslow
  • it inevitably leads to populist pandering and the death of principle
  • The Game itself devours the immortal soul of anyone who plays ( which forms a handy way to demonise anyone who does play)

But data is not a Ring of Power that puts its users in thrall to the Dark Lord. And, unlike the One Ring, it can’t be thrown into a volcano and the world saved from its pernicious influence. Evidence and strategy are here to stay. Use them, or you’re going to get used. The techniques available to David Farrar and the National party are not magic. They are available to anyone. Whether Labour has poor data or whether they use it poorly I do not know. It looks similar from the outside, and I have heard both from people who ought to know. But it doesn’t really matter. Data is only as good as what you do with it. Whatever they’re doing with it isn’t good enough.

The best example from this campaign isn’t Labour, however — it’s Kim Dotcom. He said on election night that it was only in the past two weeks that he realised how tainted his brand was. He threw $4.5 million at the Internet MANA campaign and it polled less than the Māori Party, who had the same number of incumbent candidates and a tiny fraction of the money and expertise. Had he thought to spend $30,000 on market research* asking questions like those asked by Curia about what New Zealanders think of Kim Dotcom, he could have saved himself the rest of the money, and saved Hone Harawira his seat, Laila Harré her political credibility, and the wider left a severe beating.

That is effective use of data: not asking questions to tell you what you want to hear, but to tell you what you need to know. This electoral bloodletting is an opportunity for the NZ political left to become reality-adjacent, and we can only hope they take it. Because if they don’t, reality is just going to keep winning.


* In response to this figure, UMR pollster Stephen Mills tweeted “$1000 would have been enough”.

23 thoughts on “Reality-adjacent

  1. Having an evidence-based campaign was a key plank of the original internet party approach. Things changed.

  2. “… The techniques available to David Farrar and the National party are not magic. They are available to anyone….”

    WITH THE MONEY. And I hear Labour was flat broke.

  3. Evidence-based policy a separate issue. Specifically talking about evidence-based campaigning.

  4. Sanc,

    “WITH THE MONEY. And I hear Labour was flat broke.”

    Yeah. They’re going to have to find a way.


  5. I feel like a big portion of National’s success has been asking people to believe in magic.

    That is, that you can keep most of the former Labour government’s spending commitments while cutting taxes, and somehow stay out of deficit trouble and avoid cuts to services that people care about. I only hope the cracks I’m already seeing in the IRD and the Police grow wide enough soon enough for voters to see that this is National’s fault.

  6. All this to a degree is stating the obvious, and whilst I’m not necessarily disagreeing I do still think there are issues for the left that make it a lot trickier than for National. Obviously the first two objections you list are nonsense, but you could phrase the others in less perjorative terms and they’d have a ring of truth. For starters, who’s reality? Key building a base on the right plus a soft middle for whom issues of competence and basic economic well being may be enough to carry them, is arguably more straight forward than the left picking up enough of the soft middle whilst also carrying Maori, Pacific Islanders and those for whom either the environment or social justice issues are non negotiable. What do you do if your polling tells you that for a majority say climate change doesnt really resonate any more than dirty politics does? So you change the conversation to come up with a vision that takes them with you on terms that do resonate? That’s the bloody difficult part, and why when the centre left have focused on it, it’s usually just resulted in a narrowed message that’s designed to appeal to and not spook a pretty narrow constituency on the much the same terms the centre do. There’s got to be more to this than simply finding a strategy to ‘win’.

  7. Cost is beside the point right now, the point when constrained by $$$ is where and how to spend it, and whether you are running a 20th century or a 21st century campaign. Another issue is timing of gathering evidence, and developing strategy in response to that. Think about what KDC said on saturday night, that he realised two weeks out from election his brand was ‘poison’. Not KDC’s fault for not having the evidence sooner (actual evidence, not anecdotes or perspectives from pundits and journalists). On the other hand, think about what evidence would have been gathered by National internal polling – they would already have been aware some time ago of the impact of KDC on voters. Hence right from release of Dirty Politics, JK raised KDC as much as possible, irrespective of whether KDC had anything to do with things. The mistake of IMP was to treat it as a beat-up (which in many cases, it patently was) but having not gathered the evidence early enough themselves they were always on the back foot. If evidence had been gathered early on, and used to create the distance between IMP and KDC, the narrative could have been different. By the time of MoT, it was too late for the distancing to occur.

  8. “The poster child for this campaign was candidate Chris Bishop, who ran an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign in the Labour stronghold of Hutt South and pushed the party’s strategic genius Trevor Mallard to within a few hundred votes of losing the seat he has held for 20 years.”

    You’re completely ignoring the large number of protest votes cast for Bishop in an effort to get rid of Mallard – who many see as a detriment to parliamentary Labour and just generally a weasel (trademe tickets resonated with many I talked to). Even the DimPost was calling for votes along those lines – you can’t just ignore it.

  9. Greg, I’m not ignoring that at all. Mallard’s odiousness was a crucial reason why the electorate was vulnerable when, by all rights, it shouldn’t have been.


  10. Totally agree about the role of polling and data-driven campaigning. I had some impression rob Salmond did something similar for Labour. But clearly not …
    Because it’s expensive, Greens and Labour should combine their cash, and share the data. But it’s critical.

  11. It seems to me that this blog fails to question where the public are getting their shared “reality” from. It is not something they have been born with it has been absorbed over the years from the culture in which they live, parents, school teachers, TV, MSM and the like. We do not start an election campaign with a blank slate. Yes 30 years of neoliberal economics and idolisation of celebrities, has given people a view of society and reality which is the lens through which they see politics. We also know that the right have been running a media “dirty” campaign through blogs, which have become “facts” in the MSM and become embedded in the public psyche. 4ZB in particular has been as effective as Goebells in spreading right wing propaganda which includes rubbishing the concept that we should be concerned for the environment or for those on welfare benefits. If our message is contrary to the propaganda they have been fed for much of their life voters think your opinions are “extremist” (even Winston Peters thinks they are). It will take more than evidence-based questions to enable people to hear what we are saying if it conradicts everything they have heard for the last 30 years or even the last 6 years.

  12. well said. But to all, Please Don’t say “left” again. Say “progressive”. Don’t say “right” again. Say “selfish wing of the conservatives”. Please. We need to reclaim the language. Promise?

  13. Barnard,

    The point is that it doesn’t matter whether the excuses given are true — they’re still excuses. The job of a political party is to win in spite of its circumstances, whether those be a lack of cash and personnel, cultural or cognitive biases, institutional antipathy, panem et circes, fluoride brainwashing the citizenry, or whatever else. Excuses are for losers. Find ways to win anyway.

    Yes, if talking incessantly about climate change turns voters off in a big way, you leave off talking about it incessantly. You emphasise other things, or you leave it to the Greens. Not all themes are created equal. Not all policy platforms are election-winners, and the objective importance or virtue of a given platform need not bear any relationship to whether you can win an election on it.

    It seems paradoxical, but trying to win on a virtuous but unwinnable platform usually reduces the likely policy progress, because you’re much less likely to win, and because you can’t enact substantive policy from opposition. Worse, a knock-down argument that you decisively lose means that platform will likely be regarded as resolved, and progress will likely stall for a decade or more. Climate change policy is actually a good example of this, both here, and in Australia.

    Orienting a campaign around what is important, rather than what is winnable in the cultural and ideological climate that obtains is putting the cart before the horse. First you win, then you legislate. But you also can’t just spring policy on an electorate after the fact. So the best strategy is to find winning platforms and use those as a bridge to gaining a mandate to act with autonomy. Key has done this magnificently and will be able to legislate with impunity this term. He should be emulated, not scorned.


  14. Kevin,

    You can call them what you like, but this seems one of the more trivial and misleading linguistic crusades, to me.


  15. Patricia,

    I’m not talking about trying to combat a pervasive political messaging campaign with straight factual evidence-based messages. I’m advocating using evidence about what people actually think, believe, are receptive to, and care about to inform a similarly effective campaign which is congruent with the left’s ideology and values. Fight fire with fire.


  16. @Kevin

    Kevin, there is no such thing as Right Wing vs Left Wing. There is Right Wing vs Wrong Wing. This time the Right Wing has won.

  17. Patricia:

    I share your sentiment but I think that efforts to construct a progressive counter-narrative to the dominant paradigm need to happen in between, not during elections (which is what I assume that you are inferring). My series of posts on Left Praxis or the failures thereof (see Left in tatters below) allude to this.

    As social constructs material reality and the superstructural edifices constructed upon it are not immutable “givens” of nature, but instead are malleable products of ideological competition rooted in that material reality (class identity being one such thing). It is for the Left to shape an alternative vision to the market-supportive edifice in which elections are held.

    A moderate-militant strategy in the context of a war of position seems like a start.

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  19. Lew,

    But you’ve not answered important to who?
    I’m certainly not suggesting some head in clouds platform of virtue indifferent to reality, but what Pablo’s explained far better than I ever could about a coherent vision of an alternative (and to get the cluster fuck that is the NZLP to fight for it). I think part of that is asking why you want to govern and for whom. It’s not an ‘excuse’ to realise that the answers Farrar was asked to get on behalf of a moderate managerial National party could simply lead the left to focus on a perceived ‘centre’ or ‘swing voters’. Appealing to the concerns and aspirations of people who are largely non ideological whilst keeping the Hootonesqye types on side is a very different thing than advancing the aspirations of Maori and environmental and social justice advocates. Basing your focus on ‘what’s important’ has usually gone hand in hand with deciding who’s important and it’s what’s tended to happen when the centre left have seen polling as a magic bullet. Blair couldn’t take a piss with polling or focus grouping on it. Yes, they won three terms but ‘winning’ via that approach isn’t a zero sum game, you tend to then govern that way as well. It resulted in those who didn’t fit the key issues being marginalised and their entire approach to government was to keep on the right side of the perceived ‘important issues’, with the eye always on ‘winning’ next time.
    I’m obviously not saying don’t find out what people think and consider important, but it has to be in response to the strategic vision you’ve created, and that must go beyond a slightly friendlier managerialism.

  20. Lew, thanks for a lucid and well thought through piece of analysis. I don’t disagree with your assertion that accurate and timely data is a modern day essential. Was the UMR guy hinting that maybe Labour didn’t have such day to day data?

    For me, the biggest question facing Labour is ‘How can it get itself more attuned with Middle New Zealand when the unions rather than the caucus effectively chooses the leader?’

    The caucus members are the only people who truly know the characteristics (good and bad) of leadership candidates and it is thee caucus members who must publicly support the one who is chosen.

    Rudd and Cunliffe each demonstrated the monstous folly of appointing a leader who is detested and in some cases hated by his colleagues.

  21. Adolf Fiinkensein – it’s amazing how them unions manage to make their 20% of the vote stretch to choosing the leader – you’d think the Labour party would’ve learnt something off them, surely with 24%+ of the vote they could easily have chosen the next PM?

    As for the analogy-by-Rudd – the difference would be that Kevin Rudd won the election. Oh, and then he was replaced by someone who was popular among the caucus, who went on to almost lose one election and totally lose the next (Rudd’s last minute takeover notwithstanding).

    What was the point you were trying to make again?

  22. Barnard,

    Yes, winning is necessary but not sufficient, and the party needs to decide who and what it stands for before any of the evidence that I’m talking abut basing a campaign upon makes a lick of sense. The sort of data you get from this kind of research comes with an inbuilt perspective (or perspectives) and is not very useful outside that context.

    As you say, those questions are not amenable to empiricism, unless you get into Blair territory, or where you’re asking your pollsters, as Kevin Rudd reputedly did, “what’s my top issue in Queensland?”

    But you can use empiricism to test the viability of different strategies. I have a bunch of ideas about how Labour should work to target, which other parties it should attempt to combat and which to complement, and where they should be heading, but they’re not based on anything more than reckons, i.e, the opposite of what I’m advocating.

    Anyway. That reality notwithstanding I’ll try and write those reckons up in another post.


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