New Zealand’s preeminent psephologists – that is, political scientists that study and explain elections - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts have just published their latest book, entitled Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008. This edited collection is their ‘eighth in a series of New Zealand post-election books that have followed on from conferences held shortly after each general election’. The book attempts, they say, to provide ‘an overall perspective of what occurred and why’. As well as editing the book, Levine and Roberts wrote two chapters and a preface, which are discussed in this blog post. This work explains some of the factors shaping voting behaviour, making use of a pre-election voter survey that they commissioned – which they’ve done in every election since 1984. The results show, for instance that the Greens were the least liked party in the 2008 election, and that Helen Clark was no match for John Key in what was a two-horse leadership race [Read more below]
This book is named Key to Victory because, ultimately, John Key was considered sufficiently reassuring for voters to conclude that it was safe to put the National Party back in government. The key to National’s victory – and Labour’s defeat – was John Key himself, who gave many New Zealanders the feeling that it was safe to vote for what they wanted – a change of government’ (pp.14-15).
Later on in the book, Levine and Roberts elaborate on why Key was 'the key' to National’s victory for the following reasons:
He had never served in a National government. He could not be associated with past decisions. He was, in short, a candidate with clean hands, and with political views sufficiently flexible as to avoid caricature. Offering himself as a centrist figure, happy to endorse much of Labour’s record, keen to develop more cordial relations with Maori and the Maori Party, he provided, at best, an elusive target for Clark’s blunt and aggressive rhetoric (p.230).
Levine and Roberts provide some interesting voter survey evidence of the fact that the 2008 election ‘was a two-person race and John Key had little difficulty winning it’ (p.230). In particular, they merge the data for those that both prefer and dislike Clark and Key, to show that Key was way out in front to win an election where policy didn’t matter so much:
The “differential” between them – the positive score for each, once the “least preferred” totals are subtracted from the “most preferred” totals – finds Key with an even larger margin of leadership preference over Clark, with the latter at only 13 per cent and Key at 28 per cent (p.232).
Voter fatigue with Helen Clark explains a lot about Labour’s loss of office in 2008. Previously, the ‘ability to outwit one’s opponents…. gave Clark a confidence, a self-assurance, a poise… [But] In time, this self-confidence… came to look, to some people at least, suspiciously like arrogance, irritating observers (and voters) inclined towards a more egalitarian perspective’ (p.26). Added to this, ‘the prime minister’s faith in her own superior leadership skills was not shared in a clear-cut fashion by the New Zealand electorate’ (p.26).
Declining performance in government was also only a minor factor. Those considering that the Government’s performance was ‘reasonable’ declined from 63% in 2005 to 57% in 2008; those with an ‘overall positive’ view of the Government’s performance declined from 79% to 70%. Meanwhile, those that thought the Government’s performance was ‘very poor’ increased from 5% in 2005 to 11% in 2008; those that considered it ‘unsatisfactory’ increased from 16% to 21%. As Levine and Roberts say, this is ‘a rise in negative assessments, to be sure, but not so substantial’ (p.229).
Instead, Clark’s chance at re-election ‘was undone by her friends and colleagues’: party president Mike Williams for his unwise dirt-digging, Winston Peters for his poor handling of his political finance scandal, and Shane Jones for allowing ‘a genuinely “nanny state” proposal’ about limiting shower waterflow to surface (p.27).
Yet, according to Levine and Roberts, Clark ‘left office… with a reputation largely enhanced, rather than diminished, from her years of forthright leadership’ (p.28).
Levine and Roberts are dismissive of the minor parties’ campaigns, pointing out that ‘Each was reactive’. For example, ‘ACT remained a hostage, captive to National as a result of affinities of policy… [and] its hopes of functioning post-election as a somewhat independent force – National’s conscience – were doomed given National’s far stronger electoral performance’ (p.29).
The authors say that ‘The Greens… ran an appealing, if predictable, campaign’ (p.30). Yet Levine and Roberts are fairly critical of what the party has achieved in electoral terms:
The share of the vote gained by the Greens – 6.7 per cent – should, in context [of Labour’s low vote], be seen as an unimpressive result. In 1990 the party received 6.9 per cent of the vote, a result gained within a first-past-the-post environment (where votes for minor parties in New Zealand were seen as “wasted”). What this suggests is that the party, despite its continuing parliamentary representation as well as the salience of environmental and energy-related issues internationally, has, in effect, been treading water, politically, for two decades (p.34).
Part of the problem for the Greens, it seems, is that they are pushing issues – especially under the new leadership – that are not deemed important to many voters. Levine and Roberts found that when asked to identify New Zealand’s “single most important problem” in 2008, ‘Barely mentioned – and an indication of why the Green Party does not do better in general elections in New Zealand – were the state of the environment (1.4 per cent), energy policies (0.6 per cent), and transport problems (0.4 per cent)’ (p.237).
The Greens aren’t the only ones doing poorly however – all the minor parties have struggled. Levine and Roberts note ‘the continuing decline in proportions of voters indicating an identification with New Zealand’s smaller parties since the first MMP election’ (p.226). Quite simply, people that vote for minor parties aren’t very enthusiastic about who they are voting for. Only 15% of voters actually “identify” ‘with the smaller parties’ (p.227).
Five elections later, however, the negative feelings of greatest intensity seem to be directed not towards the two largest parties – the country’s erstwhile adversaries – but rather the smaller ones, the very parties to whom MMP gave an opportunity to flourish (p.228).
And of further irony, Levine and Roberts note that Act Party voters don’t like MMP, even though that party owes its existence to this electoral system:
While it would come as no surprise to discover that most voters for smaller parties – which benefit the most from MMP – were happy to retain it (with 85 per cent of Green voters and 70 per cent of New Zealand First voters in support), this was not uniformly the case. There were even higher proportions of ACT voters (79 per cent) than National voters opposed to MMP (p.39).
The small Christian parties did particularly poorly in 2008. And Levine and Roberts point out that even the Bill and Ben Party outpolled all the registered Christian parties: the Kiwi Party, the Pacific Party and the Family Party. This shows ‘the insignificance of the Christian right in New Zealand politics – in stark contrast to the situation in the United States’ (p.34).
And while it was the Destiny Party that was judged by Levine and Roberts’ 2005 survey of voters to be the ‘least liked by survey respondents’ (p.228), this honour in 2008 went to the Greens (closely followed by ACT and New Zealand First), who were ‘in a sense the ones furthest from the “mainstream” of New Zealand politics’ (p.227).
Other interesting voting behaviour statistics can be found in the Levine and Roberts chapters. For example, in terms of gender, ‘In 2008 – as in all the previous MMP elections – Labour’s vote was disproportionately female…. National’s vote was perfectly balanced in 2008 – half the party’s voters were men; half were women’ (p.37). Meanwhile, ‘Very nearly four-fifths of ACT’s voters are men’ (p.38).
And although the 2008 general election saw the second lowest voter turnout in a century, it seems that this was not because of a decline of interest in politics: ‘There was moderate interest in the election campaign: 17 per cent had “a great deal” of interest in politics, 37 per cent “quite a lot”, 42 per cent – a plurality – “some”, and a mere 3 per cent “none at all”’ (pp.38-39).
As with all the work of Levine and Roberts, their chapters in Key to Victory come with plenty of very useful statistics and graphs, making their chapters essential reading for anyone interested in understanding New Zealand politics.
Further book details
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Neil (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.