Relentless dynamism - the 2017 election

After a tumultuous campaign, one of the most dramatic in living memory, the election results rolled in on Saturday night, and I thought a few reflections would be useful from the initial voting data. Special votes, some 384,000 of them (15% of overall voting), are currently being counted, and the final result won’t be known for a few weeks. But a few things are worth noting…

Turnout increased... and fell

The number of people voting increased by 110,000 from 2014, up from 2.45 million to 2.56 million. This means that turnout has increased for two elections in a row. Furthermore, the growth in the number of votes cast, at 4.8% between 2014 and 2017 is higher than the growth in the electoral population (3.6%). While this does suggest a more engaged voting population, it wasn’t enough to deliver Labour the breakthrough they were looking for.

And, as Andrew Geddis points out in this piece on coalition prospects, in 2017 only 91.1% of those eligible enrolled to vote, compared to over 93%. He estimates that the turnout of those eligible to vote actually declined from 72.1% to 71.7%.

At least two of the main polls got it right at the end of the campaign

There was a lot of talk in the campaign about the reliability of the polls, fuelled by the contrasting findings coming out between different polling companies. Many queried if landlines were a suitable way to poll people.

In the penultimate week of the campaign, the Newshub-Reid poll had National substantially ahead. At the time, I wrote that it looked like it was an outlier, and the perceived poll volatility led some to go so far as to suggest poll failure. Yet in the final week, the final Colmar-Brunton poll came into line with the Newshub poll, with almost identical results. The final Roy Morgan poll was less accurate, and which in likelihood reflected that it was completed 10 days earlier, and over a longer timeframe.

The table below shows the eve of election poll results published before the election, and the election night initial results. The green cells show which were closest for each party. The closeness of Newshub and TVNZ polls to the election night results are striking. Across all parties, Newshub varied by only 0.8 percentage points on average, and TVNZ by 1 percentage point.

Comparing the main publicly-available eve of election polls with election night results

Comparing the main publicly-available eve of election polls with election night results

Momentum shifted

The shift in the polls in the final two weeks of the campaign was equally striking. National’s scaremongering campaign clearly had a substantial effect on voting intentions, as shown in the next two graphs, updating earlier posts (this time using a non-linear trendline, one of my own take-homes for future blogging). For National, their vote returned to the mid-40s by the end of the campaign.

nat trend 170925.png

Labour’s polling appeared to have peaked in the first week of September, then fell away afterwards. The overall growth in the Labour vote will be pleasing for them (increasing from 24% in July to 36% on election night, and a huge gain from the 2014 election), but the decline in the final two weeks will still be deeply felt. 

lab trend 170925.png

Prospects for the final count

The election night result had National with a projected 58 seats, Labour with 45, New Zealand First with 9, the Greens with 7 and Act with 1. With 61 needed for a majority in the House, New Zealand First have the choice of aligning with National for a comfortable majority (67 seats), or Labour and the Greens for a bare one-seat majority (61 seats).

Over the next two weeks, special votes will be counted; this time around, there are more special votes than ever before, totalling some 384,000. In past elections, special votes tend to favour left-aligned parties. Two excellent pieces of analysis by Graeme Edgeler on Public Address, and Michael Appleton on Twitter, look at the possible impact on the final vote tally if the pattern of special voting in 2014 is repeated.

Their analyses suggest that the final result could increase the number of seats held by Labour and the Greens by two; and a corresponding fall for National. Time will tell.

If this is borne out, it would give Winston two quite feasible coalition options on paper – 65 with National and 63 with Labour and the Greens, both with some level of stability to pass legislation and budgets, and hold a coalition together. At this stage, it is anyone’s guess which way he will go. Because at that point, the coalition becomes less about numbers and more about policy, spending and portfolio concessions – and weighing up if the overall vote is a call for stability or a call for change.

With the largest number of seats, National are claiming victory. However, despite the triumphalist tone of the party on election night, there’s no constitutional obligation in New Zealand to align with the largest party; the Governor-General simply needs to be satisfied that the coalition that has formed has sufficient members to command a majority in the House.

The next two to three weeks will be full of speculation and intrigue, until the next house of cards is eventually built.

Everything to play for

Last week I looked at the variation in the polls, with the Newshub-Reid poll appearing to be an outlier amidst a trend towards Labour. This week however, the final polls are in, and the Reid and Colmar Brunton polls are almost identical, showing National leading Labour by 8%, at 46% to 37%. This was apparently helped along by a bruising but effective campaign against Labour’s budget figures and tax policies (and widely criticised as misinformation). The Roy Morgan poll, completed 9-10 days earlier, had National and Labour level-pegging at around 40%.

And so to the poll of polls, which in this final version, averages out the eve of election polls for each of these three publicly available polls. National, at 44% have a lead over Labour at 38%. The Greens appear to have recovered from their slump and are at 8%. New Zealand First are at 6%, still losing support week by week. 

Among the minor parties, TOP are on 1.3%, Māori Party are on 1.1% and Act are on 0.5%

When the campaign began, I wrote that Labour needed to strengthen their position to be the leading party of the left; energise and mobilise the many disaffected voters who simply didn’t vote in previous elections; and chip away at National’s vote. As the graph below shows, they very nearly did all three, but National have just pulled away in the last week.

parties 170920.png

And this is where things get interesting. If this scenario holds – and acknowledging the Roy Morgan is more than a week shy of the Colmar Brunton and Reid polls – it points to a hung parliament. The table below shows what happens when these figures are put into the Electoral Commission’s MMP seat allocation calculator.

I’ve assumed that Act will retain their Epsom seat, and that the Māori Party will pick up two electorates as well. I’ve also put my finger in the air and suggested National will pick up 35 electorate seats and Labour 30.

With MPP it’s the party vote that determines overall proportionality. So, under this scenario, pictured below, National would have the most seats with 54, but Labour and the Greens combined would have 57. Both left and right would have to try to negotiate a deal with New Zealand First – and in National’s case, the Māori and/or ACT parties as well, to get a majority.

parliamentary seats 170921.JPG

At this point, it’s about counting to 62. And that will come down to Winston Peters. In this scenario, would he align with National, but also Māori Party and ACT, two parties that he sees as an anathema to his own policy agenda? Or would he go with Labour and the Greens, many of whose policies he has also criticised (and in 2005 he refused to go into government with the Greens)?

Of course, this poll of polls scenario may not play out that way. Those of you who have read my posts can fairly easily read between the lines to see which side I personally favour. But whichever side of the fence you prefer, this scenario suggests that all parties still have everything to play for.

So, get out and vote, it really counts.


The data in this blog is taken from a poll of polls of the last three publicly available polls in New Zealand: One News-Colmar Brunton, Newshub-Reid Research, and Roy Morgan. The figures are simply an average of the most recent poll from each organisation.

Track records and outliers

It appears to be a volatile time. In the last week, one poll (Newshub) had National at 47% and able to govern alone, and another (Newsroom) had National down to 30% with Labour at 45%. And a third (TVNZ News) had Labour at 44% holding a 4-point lead over National and able to govern with the Greens on 7%. But in these wildly diverging results, is there an underlying signal?

Just before last year’s election, I wrote on the accuracy of the election eve polls from the (then) five main polling companies in 2011. The One News-Colmar Brunton poll came out on top, followed closely by Roy Morgan.

This time around, there are only three still currently polling who were around in 2014: 1 News-Colmar Brunton, Newshub-Reid (then it was 3 News), and Roy Morgan.

The table below shows the eve of election poll results published before the 2014 election, and the actual election results. The green cells show which were closest for each party.

polls & election results 2014.JPG

The next table shows the variation of each poll from the election result. The blue cells show over-estimation from the final result, and the red cells under-estimation. The yellow cells show the average variation, using absolute values, for each party and for each poll overall (I’ve used absolute values to get the degree of difference from the final result, which would otherwise have been nullified by the combination of positive and negative values).

variation 2014.JPG

Interestingly, all three underestimated National’s performance (after overestimating in 2011). All substantially overestimated the Greens – perhaps ominous given Greens current rating just above the thresholds – but were reasonably close to the remaining parties.

As with 2011, One News was closest overall to the final outcome in 2014, in terms of having the lowest average variation, but there wasn’t much in it between the three.

This time around, there’s been a bit of a shakeup. As well as the three established players, the NZ Listener and the Newsroom websites have introduced their own online polls into the debate. And the Newshub-Reid method has been overhauled to included one-quarter of its sample being drawn from an online panel, in an attempt to reach those without landline access.

There’s a lot of debate about the accuracy of online polls, partiuclarly for the representativeness of the samples, and the panels that they’re drawn from. As the New York Times observed recently, “the new Internet approaches represent high-profile, very public experiments in the next generation of opinion research. The problem is that we don’t yet know which ones will pan out.”

Recent posts have looked at the changing trends of the political parties since Jacinda Ardern took over the Labour leadership. I’ve tended to focus on data from the three publicly available polling companies, but with the above debate in mind, it’s worth looking at the full range of polls for overall patterns and possible outliers.

The two graphs below show the polling results for National and Labour since Ardern became Labour leader. The pattern for National has most polling clustered around the trendline, but with the Newshub and Newsroom polls of the past week looking well outside the overall trend. Interestingly, Newshub has National generally on or above the trendline, while TVNZ has National closer to the trendline.

nat trend 170914.png

And for Labour, the pattern is substantially in reverse, although the trendline is steeper – reflecting the votes that Labour is gathering from across the spectrum. TVNZ generally has Labour on or above the trendline, while Newshub has Labour voting more scattered either side of the trend. But the overall trend is clear.

lab trend 170914.png

In this hilarious exchange between Ardern and Patrick Gower from Newshub, Gower said “I think everybody’s right, I think the voters are very volatile.” There’s certainly change in the air, but the available data suggests some clear trends are coming through. This week’s Newshub poll, and the online poll from Newsroom, both appear to be outliers for opposite reasons, rather than volatility.

The trend so far in this campaign is away from the government, and maybe even towards change. And unless Colmar Brunton’s established approach has not kept pace with changes in telephone use, they’re still the one to watch ahead of election day.


Coalition trends and possibilities

Two more polls have shown the New Zealand election race is tightening even further. In the poll of polls used here, the National Party is retaining its lead at around 42%, but the Labour Party is only two points behind at 40%. And one poll has Labour narrowly in the lead.

But the gains for Labour appear to have come at the expense of almost every other party, so what does this mean for coalition prospects?

One thing is clear: the current National-led coalition government will have enormous difficulty coming together post-September. United Future’s sole MP resigned in August and there is no prospect of them returning a new parliamentarian. The remaining parties of ACT and the Māori Party can only muster 1.5% of the vote, and with National only have a combined 44%. The opposition parties (Labour, Greens, New Zealand First and the recently formed TOP) have a combined 55%.

As shown below, the gap between government and opposition has never been wider in the past three years than in the past week. So, is a realignment of New Zealand politics underway? And as much as this may signal a mood for change, will those that are elected to parliament coalesce into a new government?

government and oppostion.png

Common wisdom holds that 47% of the vote is usually enough to form a majority government, once the votes of parties that fail to make the 5% threshold are re-allocated. In the graph below, there are three permutations that cross the 47% threshold: Labour, Greens and New Zealand First (53%); National and New Zealand First (51%); and Labour and New Zealand First (48%).

Speculation has centred on which way the centrist New Zealand First party, and its mercurial leader, will go. In the past 20 years, Winston Peters has governed with both National and Labour, and neither have ended happily. Will he prop up a fourth-term National government, or usher in change under Labour? Mathematically, either is possible if the election were held now, but what will really matter is the post-election coalition negotiations.

coalition options 170903.png

But – and a month ago this would have been outlandish to even contemplate – a Labour-Greens government without New Zealand First may just be possible. Already, the two parties are on 45% and the trend in the past month has been nothing but upwards for Ardern-led Labour. A gain of 2-3% points over the next three weeks would make a coalition government between the two parties feasible, as long as the Greens stay above the threshold. Add in the Māori Party, who are likely to retain at least one electorate seat, and a significant change in government is on the cards.

There’s no doubt that in the past month, the political ground has shifted markedly, and the polls reflect this. Continuity under National remains distinctly possible, but a realignment of the political landscape under Labour is now plausible.


The data in this blog is taken from a poll of polls of the three publicly available polls in New Zealand: One News-Colmar Brunton, Newshub-Reid Research, and Roy Morgan. The figures are simply an average of the most recent three polls, regardless of which organisation undertook them; it therefore focuses on the most recent polling data, rather than seeking to average out the effects of different polling approaches.

A circuit-breaker election?

At any election, what success looks like is simple enough – get enough votes to get into government. The trick of course is how to get there.

For the New Zealand Labour Party, the trick, or the challenge, is threefold. They need to strengthen their position to be the leading party of the left in any centre-left government. They need to energise and mobilise the many disaffected voters who simply didn’t vote in previous elections – and as my previous post showed, this cost Labour dearly in 2014. And they need to take some of the soft support from the governing National Party.

Three weeks ago, none of these looked feasible. They were languishing in the polls, and the Green Party was gaining momentum at Labour’s expense. Undecided voters were showing at 20% in some polls, and the National Party held a 20-point lead over Labour.

And then Jacinda Ardern became the youngest leader in the party’s history and suddenly things got interesting. Ardern has brought a new dynamism to the campaign, and if Labour’s campaign launch today – which took place over three venues to cope with the crowds – is any indicator, the party and its support base has been given a massive shot in the arm.

The two graphs below look at the polling peaks and troughs over the past three years for each political party, based on a rolling average of the three publicly available polls in New Zealand. They show, for each party, their peak in the last three years, their low point, and the latest polling.

National retain a commanding lead, but are well off their peak and are in fact at their lowest point of the election cycle. Labour on the other hand are at their highest point in the cycle to date, well clear of earlier troughs. The Greens, rocked by resignations, are at their lowest point in three years, while New Zealand First are only just off their recent peak.

So, in little more than two weeks, Labour have re-established their position as the leading party of the centre-left. Furthermore, one recent poll showed undecided voters declining from 20% to 13%, and Labour seems to be the biggest beneficiary of this. The new energy seems to be bringing the disaffected back to the voting fold. For Labour, that pretty much just leaves the third objective, winning over swinging National voters. With five weeks to go, that looks very possible.

major peaks 170820.png

As for the minor parties, all need to win an electorate seat to maintain representation, because of the 5% threshold to enter parliament from the party lists. There’s been very little publicly-released polling of the key marginals, apart from Ohariu, where it appears United Future’s sole representative is well behind. The Māori Party, Mana and ACT will be hoping that they will fare better with their electorate campaigns.

minor peaks 170820.png

Looking at the trends over the past three years, Labour's recent surge is very evident in the three weeks since the change of leadership, while National are showing a steady decline dating back to May. They still have a substantial lead, but the recent momentum is with Labour.  

As for the two smaller parties, the Greens have almost halved their support to 7%, while New Zealand First has continued to hover around the 9% to 11% mark.

3-year 170820.png

Ahead of the election, I’ll look at the coalition scenarios that are emerging, and revisit the polling data to see how patterns have shifted.


The data in this blog is taken from a poll of polls of the three publicly available polls in New Zealand: One News-Colmar Brunton, Newshub-Reid Research, and Roy Morgan. The figures are simply an average of the most recent three polls, regardless of which organisation undertook them; it therefore focuses on the most recent polling data, rather than seeking to average out the effects of different polling approaches.