Like most new parties, Act had an initial honeymoon period where it obtained credible support (4-5%) in the opinion polls. This support slowly declined over 1994 and 1995 until the party hardly even registered. Act was as far away as possible from their prediction of winning 50% of the vote at the 1996 election. Two competing explanations for the failure pointed to either the basically unattractive political product being sold, or alternatively the poor packaging and selling of it. [Read more below]
Act believed they had a problem ‘getting their policy-message into the media’. But even when they paid the media to disperse their message – through an extensive newspaper advertising campaign, ‘the lack of attention was overwhelming' (Carr, 1997: p.51). Common sense apparently led Act to believe a media campaign was essential, whereas the reality was that the very nature of carrying out the advertising probably just reaffirmed people’s existing feelings about Act. As Simon Carr pointed out, ‘advertising combines all the things voters most dislike about politics and about advertising - slick, costly, boastful and almost certainly untrue’ (Carr, 1997: p.78)
Act also failed to achieve its goals in terms of its organisational structure. Although it recruited a decent-sized membership base, the system of advocates and JAGs apparently never reached its expected numbers and function.
Act’s initial low performance appeared surprising. After all, the party had a wealth of talent and resources to utilise: on the one hand they had a relatively large membership and enthusiastic activists, on the other they had plentiful funding.
The party’s organisational turmoil was one explanation. Quite simply, without an effective organisation, the party’s assets were wasted. Alternatively, Carr explains the initial failure of the party by the fact that while 'Starting up is always hard – starting a political party to answer questions no-one was asking was a new order of hardness’ (Carr, 1997: p.86).
To some extent the party was also a victim of its own professionalisation. Act had developed as a party of professional organisational ‘experts’. According to Carr, each of these groups of experts believed that they alone had the key to Act’s success:
the advertising people thought advertising was the most important thing about Act would impel the message into the hearts and minds of the voting public. The researchers thought they could characterise our constituency and reveal their hot buttons so they could be played like a pianola. Naturally enough, the computer people thought the demographic databases would reveal everything; the membership people thought the membership was most important. The membership would take our interesting message in pyramid teams through the country in three million face-to-faces; and most of the ten managers, with every justification, thought the management was the critical element in the equation' (Carr, 1997: p.93).
According to Carr, the party’s ‘delusions of grandeur’ also worked against them (Carr, 1997: p.93). The party probably had too much confidence. It truly believed in its ‘product’ and erroneously thought that electoral success was simply a case of finding ‘the right marketing mix’ to sell the product.
Rodney Hide put forward some reasons for Act’s failure thus far. First, he argued that their failure could not be because Act’s ideas are too difficult to understand, as Act’s ‘policies are working well elsewhere in the world (superannuation in Chile, health in Germany, education in Sweden) (Hide, 3 November 1995: p.8). He located the main reason for Act’s failure in the party’s apparently unusual combination of left- and right-wing ideology. Hide argued that Act’s ideology did not actually fit into the left-right spectrum, and that ‘in ideological terms there's enough to rile practically everyone in the existing political spectrum' (Hide, 3 November 1995; p.8).
However, the simple fact was – and continues to be – that the public did understand the basic nature of Act’s product and overwhelming did not like it. No matter how much the party leadership manipulated its image and softened the substance it’s message only had appeal to a small section of voters. In the end, the party’s most basic idea about the role of the state and individual was, and still is, alien to most New Zealanders.
Moreover, not only did much of the public not like the right-wing nature of Act’s policy, they were also put off by the fact that it entailed yet more change. Act was playing the role of ‘revolutionaries’ in what they thought was a staid old party system. They wanted to shake things up a little and experiment when most voters – exhausted after 12 years of change – wanted an end to reform.
Act would later attempt to solve all these problems by two general strategies:  moderation of the party; and  the aping of the other political parties.
Next blog post: Reinvention of the Act idea